Thursday, January 03, 2008

Alice Neel, self-portrait

This amazing painting is a self-portrait by Alice Neel, a New York painter who died a couple of years ago. She was given a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum a few years ago and this portrait was included. I liked much of her work -- mainly portrats -- but this self-portrait, painted in her early 80s, blew me away. This comes up today because Ellen, with whom I saw the Lucain Freud show last week, sent me this picture.

The connection with Freud is that he has painted -- and did engravings too which are in the current show -- of many obese people, both men and women. One could say it's his specialty. His people are often asleep, not as if he's sneaked up on them unaware but as if posing a long time is immensely boring, which it surely is. But Alice Neel is very much awake and clearly contemplating her body as she paints herself. For an older woman this is revolutionary. We have all grown up with society's expectation that nude women will be svelt, shapely, sexy and that the older body with it's sagging breasts and midsectoin fat rolls is a shameful ruin not to be discussed, let alone seen.

It is one thing for Rembrandt to have painted his aging face with all it's lumps and bumps and broken veins, and for Van Gogh to have painted himself with a makeshift bandage hiding the damage he did to his ear. Those were honest statements of where life had taken them. Men are not judged by their bodies -- even today, really. But women are and always have been. For Alice Neel to sit there, nude, painting herself at that age and in that normal shape and condition is more than a self-portrait, it is a political act She is stating that this too is a person worth paying attention to not some exotic from another cuture that National Geographic might print for its reader's superior and slightly purient contemplation. She is an aging woman who still has all her talent and skill and is not ashamed that she has grown older.

1 comment :

The Pagan Sphinx said...

I'm really enjoying Alice Neel these days. I've never paid much attention to her work as I walked by it in museums...not sure why...perhaps I was concentrating on other painters better known and loved by me. I love how she paints people so honestly. Honesty has its own beauty.