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Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle

I love spending the mornings at the museum. When my friend Irina proposed to go to the Barbican to catch the end of Alice Neel’s Exhibition: Hot Off The Griddle, I jumped to the occasion. The weather was gloomy anyway, and instead of staying cooped and miserable at home, I will be cooped and enchanted at the museum. Quiet simple!

Alice Neel, born on January 28, 1900, was an American visual artist best known for her portraits. Born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, she grew up in a conservative, middle-class family. Neel studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women as a young woman. She later moved to New York City, where she became involved in the vibrant artistic and political communities of the 1920s and 1930s.

Neel’s work was not widely recognised during her lifetime, but she gained critical acclaim in the 1970s and 1980s; she is considered one of the most important portrait artists of the 20th century. Her work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and internationally and is held in the collections of many major museums.

Alice Neel’s work was often political, reflecting her strong beliefs about social justice and equality. She was a painter known for her figurative art and portrait paintings. It was often characterised as profoundly humanistic. She was primarily known for her ability to capture the inner lives of her subjects, their personalities, characters, and emotions, shining the light on their struggles and aspirations. Her portraits were characterised by their emotional intensity, honesty, and realism. She was particularly interested in portraying people often overlooked or marginalised by society, such as women, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Neel’s painting style was figurative, meaning she painted recognisable people and objects from life. She used a distinctive brushwork and colour palette that gave her paintings a sense of immediacy and urgency.

T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)

Overall, Alice Neel was a significant figure in the figurative art movement, and her portraits continue to be celebrated for their emotional power and authenticity.
Throughout her career, Neel created portraits of many people, including her family, friends, fellow artists, and political activists. Her portraits are known for their honest and often unconventional depictions of the human form, and she was particularly interested in representing marginalised and underrepresented people.

In addition to her portraits of individuals, Neel also created paintings that addressed broader political and social issues. For example, her 1934 painting “Nazis Murder Jews” is a powerful indictment of the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews in Germany. Similarly, her 1965 painting “The United States Government Destroys Marijuana” is a commentary on the government’s controversial drug use and criminalisation policies.

Nazis Murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)

While Neel’s work was not overtly partisan or didactic, it was infused with a profound social and political consciousness. She used her art to amplify the voices of those often silenced or ignored. Her work continues to be celebrated for its powerful and empathetic portrayal of the human experience.

Overall, Neel’s portrait paintings are highly regarded for their skilful technique and profoundly humanistic approach to representing the people she painted. Her work has influenced generations of figurative painters and continues to be celebrated for its emotional power and authenticity.

“All of my life, I wanted to do a nude self-portrait, but I put it off till now when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity.”

Alice Neel

Neel waited until she reached her 80s to finish her first self-portraits, just four years before her death. In this painting, Neel portrays herself as a strong and confident woman, looking at the viewer with a determined expression.

Self-Portraitn by Alice Neel (1980)

Alice Neel’s 1980 self-portrait is sometimes referred to as “Telling It As It Is” because of the direct, unflinching gaze that Neel gives the viewer. In the painting, Neel portrays herself with a frank and unapologetic expression, staring out at the viewer with confidence and conviction.
This self-portrait is characteristic of Neel’s style, known for its honesty and emotional intensity.
The title “Telling It As It Is” reflects Neel’s commitment to presenting a truthful and unflinching view of the world, a quality evident in many of her portraits, including her self-portraits.

A number of challenges and struggles marked Alice Neel’s personal life, but she was also known for her fierce independence, resilience, and determination.
Neel’s personal life was marked by several significant events, including the death of her first child, a daughter named Santillana from her Cuban husban Carlos Enriquez, from diphtheria in 1927. This tragic event profoundly impacted Neel and influenced her work as an artist. The tragedy didn’t end here. Enriquez took their second daugthet Isabella to Cuba. This led to Neel suffering from a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized after attempting suicide.

In 1935, She gave birth to her first son, Richard, from her relationship with the Puerto Rican nightclub singer José Santiago Negrón after two tragic miscarriages.
Neel’s relationship with Negrón was tumultuous, and the couple experienced many challenges throughout their lives together.

In 1940, she met photographer and film critic Sam Brody, with who she would go on to have her second son Hartley.

Sam and Hartly by Alice Neel (1945)

Despite these challenges, Neel remained committed to her art and continued to paint throughout her life. She gained wider recognition later in her career, and her work is now celebrated as some of the most powerful and emotionally charged portraits of the 20th century. Neel died in 1984 at 84, leaving a rich legacy of figurative painting and a commitment to social justice and equality.

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