Alice Neel and Portraiture's Alternative Face

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alice Neel was born in January 1900 and lived for much of the 20th century.

For the first 30 years of her adult career, she painted angst-ridden, radically distorted works: "Degenerate Madonna" shows a carnal woman with serpent breasts surrounded by the ghosts of her aborted babies.

For the next 30 years, right up to her death in 1984, Neel painted mild-mannered portraits with a vaguely modern slant -- the kind of thing favored by sitters who know enough to like Matisse but want a dose of old-fashioned realism, too.

The strange thing is, it's the tame-looking later works that have real weight and that have mattered in the long run.

An important new show called "Alice Neel's Women" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts has assembled almost 70 of Neel's female portraits. The show's focus on women isn't just a nod to this museum's mandate. It gets at what makes Neel's art important and at why it's her later art that matters most.

Many of Neel's early pictures are of and about women. (It's hard to get a full sense of this period because a pile of her work was destroyed in 1934 by an enraged boyfriend.) They use the new techniques of radical modernism -- the charged color and line of expressionism, cubist dismemberings, surrealist distortion -- to do a powerful job of revealing the world women faced when Neel was young.

A 1927 watercolor uses a childlike style and comic-strip format to show the tedium of Babbittish American domestic life. Growing up amid bourgeois restraint on Philadelphia's Main Line, Neel knew this well.

That carnal Madonna, painted in 1930, reveals the perils encountered by any woman who dared unleash her sexuality. Neel, who had just joined New York's bohemia, is said to have admired her sitter's liberated ways, but you'd never know it from the picture's angstful forms and tones.

A picture of a woman who has just given birth, painted in 1939, makes her look as if she's just been through Picasso's misogynist meat grinder -- except Picasso used cheery colors when he pulled apart his lovers' bodies, whereas Neel's new mom is all grim browns and blood-clot red. Even Neel's "straight" nudes from this period hint that living inside a woman's unruly flesh must not be a lot of fun.

These early pictures do their job, but there are also problems with them.

Neel's style is interesting, even idiosyncratic, but it's built on other people's innovations. If influential originality was what she was after, she must have known these first paintings weren't going to get her there.

Much more important, by painting women in the styles of an esoteric modern avant-garde, she was committing her sitters and their experience to a marginal position. By claiming the difficulties of female life as a subject for the vanguard, she was also keeping it on the sidelines -- just where it had always been consigned by mainstream artistic culture.

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