Alice Neel, the legendary 20th century portrait painter, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum Of Fine Arts in Houston. Working against the grain of popular taste, Neel concentrated on the portrait at a time when abstraction was the norm. Her bold, distinctive, signature style did not gain recognition until the late 60's,when she emerged as a major influence on contemporary figurative painting. A recent article, written in conjunction with the exhibit, for The New York Times, addressed Neel's influential role in the American art world. She was embraced by the feminist movement, but the sacrifices she made as a women artist were not fully understood until after her death in 1984 at the age of 84.
In a documentary film, entitled Alice Neel, her grandson, Andrew Neel, shares a moving & intimate picture of Neel’s life. Her story epitomizes the struggle of women artists in pursuit of their art & the difficult choices one must make to do so. I found this film very moving. It was sad how much Neel & her family had to give up in order for her to be true to her art. She said of herself :
“I do not know if the truth that I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others. It is hard to go against the tide of one’s time, milieu, and position. But at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different from men’s.”
Of course not all of us would make the choices that she made. One hopes for balance between art & life, but perhaps, balance is achieved at the expense of greatness & that is where Alice Neel succeeded.