Alice Neel: Painted Truths

Exhibition: Painted Truths
Location: Whitechapel Gallery
Running: 17 September

There is something almost frightening walking into the Whitechapel Gallery’s new retrospective on Alice Neel. From the moment you enter, the viewer is confronted with such vulnerability and tenderness from every beautifully painted face on the wall that I have to admit it threw me a little. However, I must emphasise, this is in no way a criticism. It is rare to find a collection of paintings that emanate such emotion and character, the personality and torment of the artist palpable in each imperfect brushstroke – yet you could be forgiven for never having heard her name before.

Whilst Neel is now considered one of America’s foremost artists, and feminist icon to many, she spent her life in poverty, largely ignored by the art establishment of the 70s and struggling to make ends meet as a single mother. As a portrait artist more influenced by Van Gogh and Munch, she did not conform to the abstract expressionism that was all the rage in New York at the time, and hence was never accepted into the male dominated scene that would have ensured recognition.

Yet it is Neel’s willingness to lay bare her anxieties as a mother, her anguish at the loss of her daughter and her bitterness at the unrelenting rejection and pain permeating her life that gives her work such a distinctive character. It is an unflinching honesty, both to herself and to her subjects, that has earned her such recent posthumous critical success across the art world.

One of Neel’s most famous works, and the píèce de resistance of the exhibition, is her unforgiving and brutally honest portrait of Andy Warhol. He sits, partly naked on a bed, exposed in all his flaws with eyes closed to the world. It is a haunting image of a man that was so famously self-conscious about his appearance, and it stands in stark contrast to the viewers’ preconceived view of this arrogant, vacuous artist. Instead he is a vulnerable, androgynous figure, slumped with his hands clasped and his uneven outline fading into the background.

Neel perfectly captures the insecurities of a man who never really showed his true self to the public, and we are offered a rare glimpse of Warhol the man, weak and scarred, absorbed in his own thoughts and fears and cut off from the world.

Yet it is not just Warhol’s portrait that imbibe such qualities. Her selection of colourful and unusual subjects for her work combine with her vivid brushwork and fluid colour combine to create portraits that have a life of their own. Neel’s portrait of her son ‘Hartley’ is wonderfully expressive, bringing together a youth and sadness that reflected how this was painted at the time of the conflict in Vietnam.

He sits, gazing directly into the viewers’ eyes, arms and legs open, and the viewer cannot help but engage with him, the affection of the artist towards her subject emanating from the piece. Similarly appealing is her awkward yet intimate portrait of two transsexuals, ‘Jackie Curtis and Ritta Red’.

There is an elegance and simplicity in the painting, telling a wonderfully rich story merely through dress and body language between the two figures. Her paintings are ramshackle and spontaneous, using garish colours and imperfect paint strokes yet they somehow comes together to form work that goes beyond plain expressionistic realism.

This is particularly distinctive in her painting of nudes. Her depictions of the human form in all its flawed beauty is simultaneously astounding and repulsive, adopting a ‘warts and all’ approach that is frankly a thrill to observe. They broke away from the convention that the nude was meant to depict the epitome of female perfection, with disconcerting paintings such as ‘Isabetta’ depicting a fully naked child in a confrontational pose, hands on hips and a hardness in her gaze that is difficult to escape.

It is as though Neel is challenging the viewer to be embarrassed by the lack of self consciousness of her subjects, of their apparent ease in being so openly naked. There is a similar vivacity in her portrait of Margaret Evans, eight months pregnant, posing on narrow stool, portrayed with a stark and visceral expression characteristic of the work of Lucien Freud.

The exhibition is a journey through the ever changing fears of Alice Neel, be it her series depicting the pain and stress of motherhood, or the degeneration of the human form as she herself grew old. Indeed, it is particularly interesting the only self-portrait she ever did was of herself at eighty, naked, hunched and overweight, fully opening herself up to the penetrating and judgemental gaze of the viewer as she stares challengingly out of the painting. It is a fantastic picture that sums up her work to perfection; defiant in its use of strong colours of the chair against her bulging blue skin, stripped of all pretension and full of humour – you would expect nothing less.