Returning this week to Painted Truths, the exhibition of Alice Neel’s work at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, I was conscious of a sense of pleasure and almost relief when I entered the room on the second floor which houses a small number of her paintings of urban landscapes. Why, I wondered? Well, for one thing, they represent a change from the portraits which make up the overwhelming majority of the the rest of the exhibiton. But it’s more than that. Given their subject matter, for the most part the fire escapes and tenaments of New York City, they are quite orthodox in their style and what they depict. Regular, too. Straight lines, windows in tall rows, clear diagonals. With barely an exception, no people. As a viewer, one is allowed to relax. Admire and relax.
Step into the next room, Parents and Children, and things shift. These children are awkward, aware, staring some of them directly out from the canvas, their expressions suggesting somehow they already know what their parents have learned: life is not going to be an easy haul.
Neel herself lost a first child to diptheria, had a second, Isabetta, taken from her at the age of two by the father to live with his family in Cuba – Neel would not see her again till she was six years old and few times after that. Before most of the paintings in this room had been made, Neel will have been taken into psychiatric care after a suicide attempt, had over 350 of her drawings and paintings slashed and burned by an angry lover, and given birth to two boys by different men, the second of whom she will live with off and on for nearly twenty years in Spanish Harlem.
One of these paintings, Hartley on the Rocking Horse, shows her youngest son, blonde haired, blue eyed, astride a coal black rocking horse. High in the background is a reflection of his mother in the act of making the painting we see. Observing, out of reach, busy working even as she watches. And the boy’s eyes are wide with apprehension and fear.
It’s a wonderful painting, both for what it shows and what it suggests; what is recognisable and what lies behind. Neel doesn’t just paint faces, she paints psychological states – her own and others’.
When I visited the show first I was with my youngest daughter, almost 12 at the time, and someone who normally derives a good deal of pleasure from looking at art, but she found most of these paintings too disturbing to be given more than a cursory look.
In a very good and revealing film about Neel’s life and work made by her grandson, Andrew (showing at the Whitechapel and available on DVD) both her sons talk with admiration and a sense of partly disguised hurt about their mother’s overriding dedication to her work and the effects that had on their childhoods and upbringing.
It was seeing this film, which I did first at the ICA well in advance of this show, that made me aware of the strength of her brushstrokes and brilliance of her use of colour, the absolutely singular look of her work. The Cityscapes aside, it could have been done by nobody else. She was, I think, an absolutely terrific artist. One on her own.
The Whitechapel show is on for just one more week, after which you’ll have to travel to Malmo.
Andrew Neel’s film, Alice Neel, is available from the gallery and various other sources, including Amazon.Co.UK for £8.99 and worth every penny.
The very comprehensive Alice Neel web site is here
And there’s a nifty (nifty?) slide show with commentary by Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker that’s well worth 2.39 minutes of your time. Link here