I can’t quite remember where I first saw this Alice Neel painting but it stayed with me, taking up space in my mental art gallery.
My next exposure to her work was a documentary that recently became available via BBC i-player, and this was followed (as if delivered by fairy godmother) by a major retrospective of her work here, in the south of France, a place that while it inspired so much, feels very much an artistic backwater today.
Sometimes the planets line up for us just so.
Amusingly the retrospective is held in the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, a gallery that doesn’t actually hold any paintings by Van Gogh, but is dedicated to contemporary art and somehow found a rationale to use his name. To be fair the gallery’s strategy is to have one or two Van Gogh paintings on show alongside the headline act but headline will always be Van Gogh and the result will always be a great many confused tourists.
This exhibition is huge. It starts with her best and most well known work, and ends with her earliest, and often the most disturbing.
What comes into question when looking at the portraits (for almost all are portraits) is the relationship of Neel to the sitter, because there is clearly something going back and forth, this isn’t a one-way thing. Neel was a forceful character, and I wonder if this is it. The sitter feels the force of her, they are pinned to their place, watching her, waiting for her to finish.
Certain elements stand out: shoes, hands, eyes, noses, lips. Surrounded by all these paintings with large eyes, and curvy lips for a moment I wondered if she had a standard set of eyes, a standard nose. But every face is so uniquely its own. She has captured something behind the eyes, something in the corner of a mouth.
These are the notes I took standing in front of the works: blue lines as outlines. Feeling of unfinished and yet very finished, as if she has said “this is enough, why take it any further?” Many of the paintings are ‘unfinished’. Perhaps the background is bare canvas, or a hand has been left unpainted, a pattern on a dress roughly finished. But it doesn’t seem to matter one bit. It tells enough, it tells all we need to know. Any more would be like that extra blob of cream on top of the ice cream, that we never asked for.
She has a tendency to paint an area of blue behind her sitters’ heads, rather like a halo, a frame, an aura. Her models don’t pose. They’ve just sat down – just for a second – and she’s captured them. They may as well have sat for a photograph, a quick snap.
My notes: knock-kneed, awkward gasping of cat. Huge bushy tail! Defiance, determination of girl trying to hald on to cat. Awkwardly trying to fix face, trying to still the squirm of both cat and her own body and face.
I’m fascinated by the way that Neel doesn’t feel the need to draw an accurate hand or arm. She’s clearly capable – it’s obvious in some of her other works – and yet here she just doesn’t bother, it’s not important. And it doesn’t matter, if anything it adds to the whole awkwardness of the moment.
My notes: knee unfinished, hands half done. Face is so absolutely him. Again clearly outlined in blue. Looks as if he is rising up and towards us. Like he is dead and has come back Somehow quite angelic. Sickly green through hair and skin. Eyes closed. Suffering, indignant, proud.
I didn’t really know about the attempt made on Warhol’s life but it seems he did almost die from the shooting. Everything about this painting is extraordinary. Warhol’s expression is of pain, just trying to deal with it for this moment, waiting for it to pass. Hands together for comfort, he is pale, weak, brutalised. He perches on the bench, barely there. He could float away at any moment.
“I had always loved Alice’s work, because it was a mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. The sublime and the grotesque to me were part of her esthetic, were part of what she was conveying to the world—that people are beautiful and grotesque, that people are poignant and tragic, that they had big interior lives. She gave them big interior lives. She saw the lives in them that even they did not recognize. What emerged was a kind of desperate beauty.” John Gruen (central figure in painting)
I watched the documentary on Neel (made by her son Andrew Neel) and a documentary on Hockney one after the other. What is striking about both artists is how absolutely single-minded they are. Nothing could keep them from painting. Their need to paint is akin to their need to breathe. Striking also that they each seem to have a question to answer. In Hockney’s case it is how we see, in Neel’s case it is to truly see someone.
At one point in the film Neel talks about the moment when she stops painting, when her sitter has left, and she feels empty. While she is painting it is as if she has entered her sitter. This is such an extraordinary thing to say and yet it also makes so much sense. And it’s similar to how writers describe the process of getting inside their character’s head. It reminds me of the sketches of Giacometti I saw in our local gallery – how he seems to be drilling under the skin, feeling his way around the contours of the skull, searching for the soul.
“I do not know if the truth I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others…at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and as a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different than mens’” Alice Neel
ARTnews on the portrait of the Gruen family
Fondation Vincent Van Gogh
Alice Neel Film
Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 2010