Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Pat Whalen, Alice Neel, 1935
I'd never heard of Alice Neel until I encountered this portrait of an Irish-American union leader last week at the Royal Academy's America after the Fall exhibition. And then she cropped up again - one of the women artists celebrated in BBC's new Imagine series. So I've just grabbed an hour over lunch to watch the riveting documentary, made by her grandson.

Alice Neel was born on January 28, 1900, four weeks younger than the century. Her penetrating gaze caught the individuality of her sitters but also seized on something about the era in which they lived. (And managed to keep on doing this into the 1970s and 80s at the end of her life.)

The documentary is a fascinating account of what it costs to be an women artist and the fall-out to those closest to her. For much of her life, Alice Neel worked in obscurity, struggling as a single mother on benefits. Her work was out of kilter with fashionable abstract expressionism; she painted humanity. Her uncompromising need to paint One daughter died as a baby; another was taken away to Cuba by her father and when Alice saw her again as an adult, she didn't even recognise her: that very beautiful young woman later committed suicide; Alice's two sons - one of them cruelly bullied by a charismatic, intellectual stepfather - come across as damaged souls, fearful of Bohemian chaos and yearning for bourgeois security.
At the end, her daughter-in-law makes the point that Alice's work was eventually recognised and she became famous and so it was worth it; but if she had never been recognised, would it still have been worth it? Not a question that would be asked in quite the same way of a man.

I also watched the programme about Jeanette Winterson, thinking I'd heard it all before - then realised it was a repeat from a few years ago. I'd still like to sit down with Mrs W and hear another side of the story.

2 comments:

Veronica Cooke said...


I shall watch the Alice Neel documentary on catch up or i player - it sounds fascinating.

Mary said...

Hope you enjoy it, Veronica. She sounds a fascinating woman.