Saturday, February 25, 2012

Alice Neel, painter

The biographical film about the painter Alice Neel was yesterday's documentary film. I loved it. She is not as well known as she deserves. Alice Neel was born just a few weeks after the turn of the 20th century. She lived into her late 80s. For almost all of her adult life she painted portraits, quite alone, piling them up in her homes, first for the WPA during the '30s, then in Grenwich Village and later in her Harlem apartment where she went to be able to paint the real people on the streets while the "big boys" among the artist of the '50s had totally given up all figurative painting for abstraction. She had two daughters and two sons, the first daughter died of diphtheria very shortly before a vaccine became available. The second daughter was left in Cuban with her father and his wealthy family because Alice could not care for her alone. The two sons came a little later, each with a different father, one of whom was very abusive, as a single mother Alice was always struggling to make ends meet but the two became professionals, one an M.D. and the other a lawyer. A grandson made the documentary which was very professionally filmed and edited.

Throughout her life Alice lived to paint and painted haunting portraits of people of every social layer. Her paintings emphasize personality -- especially in their eyes -- in her own style which is not "realistic" but deeply realistic in conveying the personality. Only in her last couple of decades was she recognized; the women's movement helped greatly to bring her to the art world's attention and she was given a one woman retrospective in the Whitney Museum in the mid-'70s. And inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. Recognition she relished after so many years of total neglect. I was lucky enough to see a reprisal of that first big Whitney show in the early '80s -- my introduction to her work. It was astonishingly moving and only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of the hundreds of portraits she painted. I am enormously heartened when I watch a film like this or read about someone (and especially a woman) who has worked with dedication in obscurity finally recognized. For every Alice Neel who is recognized how many are there who are not?


Jonas said...

I believe one is blessed if given the opportunity to spend time in the company of an artist. I consider myself incredibly lucky for I've had the opportunity to spend time with several.

We, as a society, rarely savor what the artist offers: a perspective, a vision, a paradigm demolition.

And we're the poorer for that. We impoverish ourselves if we ignore the dreamers, the quirky, the unique.

June Calender said...

I couldn't agree more and you are very lucky. You are also an artist, a poet, and your work shows no inpoverishment.

Thanks for your note, Jonas.

June Calender said...
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