alice Neel, art, humanism, humanity, inspiration, life, MET, museums, People Come First, visual art
I knew nothing of Alice Neel or her artwork until I came across a retrospective of her at the MET in my newsfeed. It’s not the kind of art I’m usually drawn to and yet it struck me full in the face. I could not look away. It was those faces looking back at me, steely-eyed, or curious, defiant, indifferent—each face imposing in its own way. Each strong and vulnerable at the same time. All their frailties exposed as well as the undeniable beauty of their imperfections. And even more so, what impresses is the precise and utter uniqueness of their individual humanity.
“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.’’
So writes Alice Neel of her artwork, and that’s what I saw there—the dignity and the eternal importance–of each person in those portraits. That’s what she revealed.
Raw, caustic, gritty. All the nicety, sentimentality, and usual clichés stripped away. Leaving the viewer, this one at least, feeling raw, exposed, vulnerable herself. Stripped down to that one commonality that unites us—-our fatal flaws and the dignity by which we bear them. We see this in all her paintings.
We see it in the careless and somber curiosity of the two restless girls gazing at the artist intent upon capturing their likeness. How can you look away from those eyes? Or the ones in the next portrait.
This distended body of the pregnant woman whose “deer-in-the-headlights” face reveals all the expectant wonder and uncertainty of what lies before her.
The close-eyed submission on the face of the proud artist Andy Warhol as he allows the indignities of an abused body to be revealed.
The dark brevity of a young Vietnam draftee who expresses the resignation and uncertainty of a future that is left sketched so lightly before him.
The weary warmth and love of the breast-feeding mother, and the helplessness and hunger of the child who so desperately depends upon her.
The somber “back at ya” gaze of the nude man in all his hairy splendor, completely vulnerable to the female gaze in a role reversal.
Then there’s the last self-portrait of Neel herself toward the end of her long career, gazing away into the distance with a kind of calm resignation or disregard, while the bulk of the portrait is filled with the lines and planes of a full, well-used, aging body. What we leave behind. What was dear to us and others. What will be no more.
But for now here she is, her body open and on display in all its imperfect glory. She dares us to look away from our own mortality. But also invites us to see the “dignity and eternal importance” of each and every one of us.
Writing to Freedom said:
Her art is certainly unique with those intense expressions, but not anything I would want in my home.
I know what you mean. I don’t think I would want any hanging on my wall either, except perhaps for the portrait of those two little girls. Something about those faces really moves me. I think if I were to look at them and then walk out into the world I would be moved to look more closely at the faces of all the people I meet on the street and in stores, to look more closely to see the dignity by which they carry themselves, and find the eternal importance of their unique individuality.
Most of us, me including, like art that inspires or uplifts us, and quite often that means art that we think is beautiful. But “art that hurts,” as Gwendolyn Brooks spoke to, or acts as “an axe to break the frozen sea within” as Kafka recommended can inspire us and lift us to think more deeply about things that normally we would want to turn our eyes away from. So while I too wouldn’t want to hang much of her artwork on my wall either, it makes me wonder why that is. What am I afraid to look at? What don’t I want to see? Even if we don’t hang it on our walls, these are good questions to ask ourselves, and seldom we do, speaking for myself.
Writing to Freedom said:
I appreciate that you examine art and your relationship to it so deeply. I like art that inspires me and/or is beautiful.