Alice Neel, American portrait painter

It is a portrait of Andy Warhol, as we have rarely seen. The star artist appears there in all his vulnerability. Sitting, his eyes closed, he reveals his bare chest, all covered with scars. A few months earlier, he narrowly escaped death after being shot by Valerie Solanas, a feminist author. Strangely enough, this portrait of Warhol, with sagging breasts, tight knees, assumes an undeniable femininity.

This painting by Alice Neel, an American painter who died in 1984 and little known in France, is one of the highlights of the exhibition dedicated to her at the Center Pompidou. Angela Lampe has brought together nearly 70 paintings and drawings around two key themes for this artist, very close to the Communist Party: the class struggle and the gender struggle.

Born with the XXe century, Alice Neel married a Cuban painter at the age of 25, at a time when mixed marriages were still prohibited in many American states. Based in Havana, she paints the destitute there with deep empathy. This feeling will never leave her.

Back in New York, she represented African-American intellectuals fighting against segregation, Caribbean immigrants, striking workers beaten by the police… Works in line with Robert Henri, one of the founders of the Ashcan School, “the School of the trash can” known for its realism and its urban scenes.

She tracks down the truth of attitudes

Soon, Alice Neel emancipated herself from it through her portraits. Deprived of her daughter by her first husband, forced to raise her other children alone, again the victim of a violent companion who destroyed a large number of her works, she must fight to pursue her career. And pioneeringly denounces gender assignments. She paints naked women far from the stereotypical canons, homosexuals, transvestites… Receiving an art critic, she makes him pose naked like a Odalisque by Matisse, in a role reversal game. The artist, according to one of his sons, would also have offered to the FBI agents responsible for monitoring her during McCarthyism to paint their portraits. In vain.

In her couple portraits, she uncompromisingly reveals the signs of a power relationship. Like this man who poses dressed next to his naked companion, his arm resting on her, or this other, slumped in an armchair, rejecting his wife seated, knees together, on the edge of the painting. A fine example of “manspreading” (masculine sprawl), would say today’s feminists! Alice Neel even hands us, from 1949, what no one wants to see: the portrait of a battered woman, Peggy.

As often, the artist approached very close to the model that she captures in a slight overhang. With a dark, slender line, she has surrounded this body with tenderness, watching for the truth of an attitude: here an arm thrown back, which gives Peggy the air of a disarticulated puppet. Echoing her bruised face, three apples in a fruit bowl, the green blouse and the blue pillow make the composition sing, with a grating irony. It’s both beautiful and sad to cry.

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