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.

Body Politics at the Barbican Gallery

AT THE TICKET desk of the Barbican Gallery we were hesitantly asked if we knew about the exhibition of Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) because it contains some sexually explicit exhibits. We said we knew roughly what we were heading for.

The exhibition is laid out on two floors and visitors are given a suggested route that allows one to see the gradual development of Schneemann’s work from abstract and semi-abstract painting through to highly adventurous installations and happenings (to use a word that assumed a special meaning in the 1960s).

The artist’s earlier works are on the upper floor. Dissatisfied with the relative flatness of painting on canvas, she began adding a third dimension to her paintings. Soon she was producing collections of objects in boxes, rather like the kind of things produced by Joseph Cornell. Unlike Cornell, who filled his boxes and frames with intact objects, Schneemann filled hers with damaged objects, such as rusty musical boxes and fragments of broken glass.

Much of Schneemann’s work became involved with the human body and sexual experiences, as depicted from the female point of view. In many of her creations, she used her own body as a prop. For example, there is a film recording of a ‘happening’ during which she painted glue on her naked body and then applied scraps of paper to herself, creating a human collage. Many of her other works either defy description or if described might disturb the squeamish or prudish reader.

Later in her career, she moved from depicting the body and sexual matters to political comment and protest. Most of these often powerful works are in the form of videos and installations.

I much preferred the earlier works on the upper floor. They were created as timeless artworks that could be looked at whenever. The more adventurous and innovative works on the lower floor are mostly almost static records of events that would have been seen to full and maximum effect when they took place in real life so many years ago. That said, this exhibition was both exciting and interesting.

Going green in an urban jungle

REMNANTS OF LONDON’S ROMAN wall can be seen from various points in the Barbican Estate, whose construction began in 1965. The not entirely unattractive residential brutalist concrete jungle, known as The Barbican is sited next to the northern edge of what was formerly Roman Londinium. According to a history of the area (

“The name of the Barbican comes from the Low Latin word ‘Barbecana’ which referred to a fortified outpost or gateway: an outer defence of a city or castle or any tower situated over a gate or bridge which was used for defence purposes. The “Barbecana” was probably situated somewhere between the northern side of the Church of St. Giles Cripplegate and the YMCA hostel on Fann Street.”

By the 1850s, the district of Cripplegate, where the Barbican is located, was very crowded with dwellings and business premises. Much of the area now occupied by the Barbican had been destroyed by bombing during WW2. The Estate was built to replace what the Luftwaffe had destroyed.

Apart from several water features, there is one oasis of greenery on the otherwise extremely urban site. This is the Barbican Conservatory. Opened in 1982, it is located above the Barbican’s main theatre and can be entered through an entrance close to that of the Barbican’s Art Gallery. Despite it having been in existence for so many years and having known about it for several decades, it was only yesterday (6th of April 2022) that I first ventured inside it. We had just viewed the current exhibition in the Gallery, “Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965”, an impressive display of rather unexciting artworks. Entering the Conservatory was literally “a breath of fresh air” after viewing the exhibits that had been arranged to illustrate the depressing emotional aftermath of WW2 as depicted by artists in Britain.

I was surprised to learn that the Barbican Conservatory is:

“… the second largest in London (after Kew Gardens) and home to over 1,500 species of plants, but is one of the city’s lesser-known green spaces.” (

Apart from the plants, many of them exotic, which are arranged on various levels and can be viewed from both a lower floor and an elevated walkway, there are three ponds. One contains koi carp and the other, raised above ground level, is home to two terrapins, which were found in ponds on Hampstead Heath. The Conservatory is divided into two main sections. The larger is the tropical section, where visitors are permitted to wander about. The other, which was locked up yesterday, is the arid section, containing cacti and succulents.

Despite being in the midst of a manmade, visually intriguing, but harsh urban environment, the Conservatory with its tall trees, bushes, flowers, and other vegetation, feels like another world – a primaeval paradise from which the modern world can be glimpsed in the background.  

Noguchi on show in London

AT FIRST GLANCE, the lower floor exhibition space at the Barbican art gallery in London resembles the lighting department of a furniture store such as Habitat. It is full of lighting units with Japanese-style paper and bamboo shades. After a moment, you will notice that these lighting units are not run-of-the-mill illuminations; they are interestingly shaped works of art lit up from within. These lamps are part of an exhibition of the artistic creations of Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). Born in Los Angeles, he was the son of a Japanese father and an Irish American mother. The first 13 years of his life were spent in Japan, where he began learning carpentry whilst helping his mother building their family house. From these early skills, it was not long before he embarked on what was to become a highly productive creative career, making works from a wide variety of materials from wood and stone to metals and plastics and … you name it.

Noguchi studied sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City. In 1927, he was given a grant to travel to Paris. It was there that he was apprenticed to the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957), who introduced him to abstraction. After learning much from the great sculptor in Paris, Noguchi abandoned pure abstraction and moved towards depicting the living world. However, his experiences working with Brâncuși influenced his artistic output for the rest of his life. After Paris, Noguchi travelled extensively, learning about techniques and philosophies, especially Chinese and Japanese. In 1929, he first met the architect and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), whose ideas about science and technology chimed with his. In the exhibition, there is a shiny chrome-plated bronze bust he made of Buckminster Fuller in 1929. There are also a couple of models he created in collaboration with Buckminster Fuller.  Noguchi’s interest in science was not only expressed in sculptures but also in stage settings for ballet performances choreographed by Ruth Page and for performances by Martha Graham.

During WW2, although it was not required for him to enter one of the camps where the Americans ‘cooped up’ potential Japanese enemy aliens – Japanese who lived in the USA – Noguchi volunteered to be confined in a camp in Arizona. By doing so, his aim was to create an arts programme that would ease the lives of those confined in the camp. The barren landscape surrounding his camp proved to be yet another influence on his creative output.

Amongst the many exhibits in the Barbican’s show, there are, in addition to the lighting units, several pieces of furniture designed by Noguchi. One of these is a triangular plate glass tabletop supported by two interlocking timber supports. I have seen this elegant item for sale in upmarket furniture shops, but until I saw the exhibition, I had no idea it had been designed by Noguchi as long ago as 1944. It is still being made today.  The wonderful variety of lighting sculptures, which at first reminded me of lampshades that were trendy in students’ rooms in the 1970s, are examples of ‘Akari’. Noguchi began creating them in the early 1950s, and despite their fragile nature, they are still in good condition now. One of the gallery invigilators told us that the translucent paper used to construct these lamps is made from mulberry tree bark. Known as ‘Washi’, this handmade paper can also be made from the bark of some other tree species.

As with other exhibitions at the Barbican gallery, the artworks are well-displayed and beautifully lit. If you go to this exhibition, you should not miss the video film in which Noguchi talks about his life and art very eloquently. And while you are watching it, you can sit on stools and a bench Noguchi designed. Prior to visiting this show, I had heard of Noguchi and seen a few of his works. The exhibition, which continues to the 23rd of January 2022, has truly opened my eyes to what a magnificent artist he was.