Alice Neel: The Subject and Me
An extraordinary figurative painter with a troubled psyche
This article is from 2016.
Alice Neel doesn't sit comfortably in the art history books. While her peers were making conceptual art she made expressive figurative paintings. For today's gallery-goers her work will come as a shock to the system: not just oil paintings but oil paintings of people. If an artist today had made them they would struggle to be taken seriously without inventing a conceptual slant to justify it. No doubt there are Alice Neels working this century who will wait a long time before receiving recognition.
Neel was an extraordinary painter with a troubled psyche, yet her paintings aren't entirely pessimistic. There is a feeling that her portraits were an attempt to accept her subjects – or have her subjects accept themselves. Occasionally they feel more morose, often downright disturbing. In the case of The Family (1980), a young mother is surrounded by children who stare back at us with naturalistic faces. The mother's face, by contrast, is completely distorted as if her selfhood has been robbed by her status as a mother.
Though her paintings are distinctive – her sitters are often attributed caricature features and are usually heavily outlined in blue – there are definite touches of Gauguin and Van Gogh: the thickly applied paint, the contrasting colours, and the dreaminess of her flowing lines.
The best thing about this show though is the large display of drawings that tell us so much about her life and what informed her final paintings. Most people would assume that something darker lurks beneath her brightly coloured canvases, but you wouldn't expect this to be proven so dramatically in her sketches and watercolours. Black ink drawings of skulls and troubled-looking children reveal the artist's angst around the time she was receiving therapy. Painting wasn't merely a choice for Neel, but something on which she depended to work through the darkest chapters of her life.
Talbot Rice Gallery, until 8 Oct, free.