Revealing the soul. Alice Neel.

DESCRIBED AS THE FIRST living artist to have had a retrospective exhibition in the Soviet Union, the American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984), there is a superb exhibition of her art at the Barbican Centre in the City of London until the 21st of May 2023. Alice, who was born in a small town in Pennsylvania, led a colourful life – and by this, I am not referring only to her paintings. Politically, she was leftward leaning. In 1935, she joined the US Communist Party and remained a member throughout the McCarthy era and after it. She participated actively in anti-fascist activity before WW2. Some of the portraits she painted were of Marxists and members of the US Communist Party. Maybe, it was this political activity that got her, her family, and her paintings invited to Moscow in 1981. She was a Communist but objected to the bureaucracy associated with the Party. In late life, when she was asked about her political views, she replied that she was “an anarchic humanist.”

During the Great Depression that hit the USA in 1929, President Franklin Delaney Roosevelt initiated the New Deal programme to deal with the unemployment crisis. In 1933, as part of this the Public Works Art Project was set up, and Alice joined it immediately. She was paid US $26.88 per week to produce a painting every six weeks. Her works done for this organisation and its successor, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Association, depicted urban scenes of adversity and social injustices. These paintings were her own brand of Socialist realism. I liked what was on display.

Alice remained a figurative artist throughout her life and throughout the period when most of her fellow American artists were moving away from the figurative and increasingly towards the abstract. The highlights of the exhibition are her portraits, some of them of subjects who have removed their clothing. In all of her portraits, she gets beneath her subjects’ clothing or external appearance and portrays not what a conventional portraitist depicts, but the personalities of her subjects as she understood them. The results were not always liked by her subjects, but the viewer can get much more of an idea of what the people would have been like had we been lucky enough to meet them. Like the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), Alice’s portraits are not a slavish reproductions of nature but a wonderful attempt to portray what lies beneath the surface – the subject’s soul and character. She once said:

“As for people who want flattering pictures of themselves, even if I wanted to do them, I wouldn’t know what flattery is. To me, as Keats said, beauty is truth, truth beauty … I paint to reveal the struggle, tragedy, and joy of life.”

Included at the Barbican’s exhibition, there is a documentary film about Alice made by Nancy Baer. Alice was filmed in various situations, and comes across as a delightful person. Some of the scenes in the documentary show her at work on a portrait. What impressed me when watching these scenes in her studio was her ability to create straight from life unwaveringly. She looked at her subject and without faltering painted elements of the portrait that did not need adjusting. Her eye-brain-hand coordination looked to be superb.

Returning to the Moscow exhibition, the “Morning Star” newspaper (, which praised the exhibition, pointed out:

“…a wall text incorrectly refers to Neel’s 1981 Moscow exhibition as being by the “first living artist to have a retrospective in the Soviet Union,” whereas many artists including Yuri Petrov-Vodkin, Alexander Deyneka, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger had exhibited there from the 1930s onwards.”

They may well be right, but whether the artists mentioned were showing a few of their works rather than a retrospective covering their whole output until the date of the exhibition, is a question I cannot answer. In any case, it was no mean achievement to have been both invited to exhibit in Moscow during the Cold War and to have been elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (in 1976).

Once again, I must admit my ignorance: Alice Neel was an artist who was new to me. However, I am pleased that she is now on my radar. I can strongly recommend visiting the exhibition at the Barbican for an exciting visual feast.

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