About a month ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the Alice Neel "Uptown" exhibit at the David Zwirner Gallery. I love the energy in her paintings, and the exhibit is a gem! I wrote the following after seeing this, with visits to the MFA Boston and MOMA to see Frida Kahlo's paintings.
Alice Neel and Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel both painted portraits delving into the psyches of their subjects, Frida frequently self-portraits, and Alice a wide range of people from all walks of life, often neighbors from Spanish Harlem where she lived for decades. Kahlo’s paintings tend to have a sad and pained undertone, while Neel’s range from somber to quirky and caricature-like at times. Both artists often portray their subjects face forward, intently staring out from the canvas at the viewer.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts “Making Modern” exhibit features Frida Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres which recently returned from the conservators, accompanied by work by her husband, Diego Rivera, and photographs by friends including Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), a small oil painting on canvas, is the centerpiece of the exhibit, painted by Kahlo in 1928. Kahlo’s fine brush strokes and careful value transitions portray two women who stare off toward the distance to the left of the viewer. The women overlap and are wearing what appears to be typical Mexican peasant attire, simply dressed, one in blue, the other in neutral colors, blending her with the background which is homogeneously filled with lush green foliage, leaves and apples. According to the MFA’s information on the painting, Salvadora and Herminia “were maids in Kahlo’s mother’s household, the Casa Azul (Blue House). Remarkable in its graphic power, the painting’s heroic iconography of two workers is in keeping with Kahlo’s Communist sympathies. An early and intimate image, it displays Kahlo’s intent to capture Salvadora and Herminia as individuals, editing out their aprons and other such details as she painted.” (MFA Boston) At each side of the painting, to the left and right of the women are butterflies, one top left and the other near the shoulder of the woman on the right. Both butterflies very nearly blend in with the background. In Kahlo’s paintings, butterflies are considered to represent the life cycle: “Birth, death and resurrection are alluded to in the life cycle of the butterfly depicted in Self Portrait with Bonito, 1941. The butterfly is the symbol of the eternal soul in both Christian and Aztec belief.” (Dexter)  Perhaps Kahlo intended for the butterflies to represent rebirth for Salvadora and Herminia becoming something other than maids.
Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I is on display at MOMA in New York City, a self-portrait with one of her pet monkeys. The canvas is small, oil on board, and like Dos Mujeres is painted from corner to corner with careful detail in fine brush strokes, and again using natural, life-like coloration. Kahlo stares out from the canvas with a steely gaze. The painting unflinchingly depicts her unibrow and fine mustache. Her long black hair is worn down rather than in her characteristic braids, and the monkey’s hair is painted similarly to her own hair, perhaps indistinguishably linking them. The positions of Kahlo and the monkey echo Madonna and Child paintings. Kahlo was unable to bear children, and her monkey seems here a substitution for a child in this painting. The background is filled with lush greenery. The highly decorated frame with gold and mirrors contributes to the formality of the portrait. Kahlo paired the painting with a similarly framed mirror to give to a friend so they could be together, according to MOMA’s website (MOMA). This painting portrays a relatively calm Kahlo: “Fulang-Chang y Yo is one of Kahlo’s happiest and most contented self-portraits, but other self-portraits are less upbeat.” (Deffebach 57)
The “Alice Neel, Uptown,” exhibit currently at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York displays paintings from Neel’s years living in Spanish Harlem, beginning in the 1940’s. Neel’s portraits focus in on the personalities of each of her subjects, often with large limpid staring eyes, expressive poses and gestural hands. She outlines the figure in a blue line with lively thick brushstrokes, and chisels the planes and features of her subject with dramatic value and color, often using colors outside the norm for skin tones, yellows, greens and blues.
Harold Cruse, 1950, oil on canvas, 31 x 22 inches, depicts an African-American man filling the picture frame, wearing a loose-fitting gray suit with a blue scarf and staring out with his face held by his left hand’s gangly fingers. He appears contemplative, thoughtful and quiet. His right hand shows a clenched fist, giving a fidgety affect to the otherwise still and pensive nature of the portrait. The background is rendered in muted browns and grays, split in the middle, brown to the left and gray to the right, without defining space or location. His face is large for the body size, and is undeniably the focus, with strong value changes defining the planes of his face. The painting has overall dark and brooding color.
Neel’s Ed Sun, 1971, oil on canvas, 42 x 30 inches, was done following her move to a more light-filled apartment, which appears to have lightened and enlivened her paintings. Her subject sits comfortably and casually in a chair that has wooden arms, with his legs crossed. His face, arms and blue shirt are fully declared with strong juicy colors, including green in his skin tones; his white pants, the chair and the background are sketched in with varying degrees of definition, loose, gestural and sketchy, all outlined by Neel’s blue outline. The background here is an undefined space with muted color behind the figure. Sun’s hands are defined mostly by Neel’s thick blue outline with simple color and value. The hands are painted small compared to the body, but their gesture conveys a sense of engagement on Sun’s part. Neel’s busy, gestural brushstrokes make her presence felt in the picture as well.
Harold Cruse and Ed Sun demonstrate Neel’s penchant for honing in on the face, eyes and soul of her subject and her loose and fearless brushstrokes. “Her pictures are edgy, awkward, candidly unflattering, frequently humorous or grotesque. The heads are disproportionately big, the hands claw-like, the limbs flaccid or cricked and skewed in defiance of anatomy to get across further expression or character…. She pays no attention to the sitter's fears of appearing graceless or gauche (her method, she said, was to converse until they unconsciously assumed their most characteristic pose in a chair, revealing "what the world had done to them and their retaliation".)” (Cumming)
The portraits by Kahlo and Neel share similarities, a directly painted subject who stares out from the canvas, portrayed intimately by the artist who delves deeply. The subjects are similarly located in space on the canvas, centered, absorbing most of the space depicted. In each artists’ work, the pool of information shared about her subject feels deep, profound and personal.
Kahlo’s colors are natural and realistic with small tightly painted brushstrokes completely covering the surface. The two paintings discussed here depict a calmer demeanor and portrayal than much of her work, including her retablos which were narrative of her experiences and pain. She imbued her paintings with borrowed and reinvented Mesoamerican symbolism in keeping with her Mexican heritage: “The plants, animals and objects function as secondary attributes with which she communicates her current aspect and the theme of the painting,… When these elements appear in Kahlo’s art, they retain traces of their ancient symbolism, which she transformed and adapted to narrate her life and express her personal philosophy. By drawing on Precolumbian connotations she imbued her work and her own image with a sense of myth. (Deffebach 59) Kahlo’s self-portrait feels internally focused and enigmatic.
Alice Neel painted with exuberant brush strokes and rich, vivid colors, leaving some areas of the canvas unpainted or very understated, often in clothing or in the background, giving a loosely sketched, breezy effect. She focused in on the face and hands, the close-in awkward gestural poses and steely gazes. Neel painted in her own apartment, so her subjects are often seated on furniture that appears in multiple paintings, not in a symbolic setting like Kahlo’s paintings.
Kahlo was called a Surrealist by Andre Breton, a label she questioned, but it is fitting and she is displayed with the Surrealists at MOMA: “…if this feeling (new mystery and magnetism, a greater depth of self-awareness) has much to do with Frida’s cumulative years of suffering, the example of Surrealism’s stress on the subconscious as the source of artistic content cannot be overlooked, either. Certainly Breton’s theories affected the enigma and the psychological innuendo of her most Surrealist work….” (Herrera 230, 257)
Neel pursued her vision for her work relentlessly, despite living and working in New York at a time when realism in painting was in decline. “Neel was painting at a time when a modernist view of the world was ascendant. … But above all, Neel’s devotion to the realist depiction of the human form in an era of increasing abstraction – whether figurative, geometric or expressive– confirmed her position as an outsider. … (S)he avoided abstraction as a mode of painting because of its narrative limitations.” (Lewison)
Frida Kahlo turned her probing inquisitory gaze on herself and her own life, Alice Neel turned hers on the people around her, and both produced searing psychological studies in their painting process. Laura Cumming said of Neel, “Dressed, half-dressed or nude, the sitters are all naked beneath her scrutiny,” but this would apply equally well to Kahlo. (Cumming)
Cumming, Laura. The Guardian.
Deffebach, Nancy. María Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo: Challenging Visions in Modern Mexican Art. University of Texas Press, 2015.
Dexter, Emma, and Barson, Tanya. Frida Kahlo. Tate, 2005.
Gassaway, William T. The Met.
Herrera, Hayden. Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo. Harper Perennial, 2002.Hoban, Phoebe. Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
Lewison, Jeremy. Beyond the Pale: Alice Neel and Her Legacy. Art & Australia, Vol. 48, No.3, February 2011. http://www.aliceneel.com/articles/pdf/502_512_Neel_low.pdf.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com.
Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Frida Kahlo: Dos Mujeres. http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/frida-kahlo-dos-mujeres, 2016.
 “Butterfly imagery enjoyed a long history in the arts of Mesoamerica and probably had multiple meanings and associations through time. In the Early Classic murals at Teotihuacan and Cholula, they are associated with warriors, fire, fertility, death, and rebirth. … (M)ost scholars agree that Mesoamericans regarded butterflies as something akin to the soul—a belief that was also shared by the ancient Greeks and Hindus. … Furthermore, butterflies, along with hummingbirds and other winged beings, were closely related to concepts of reincarnation.” (Gassaway)
 “Retablo: A votive offering made in the form of a religious picture typically portraying Christian Saints, painted on a panel, and hung in a church or chapel especially in Spain and Mexico.” (Merriam-Webster Dictation definition). Kahlo created her version retablos to tell a more narrative story in many of her paintings (for instance The Suicide of Dorothy Hale).
This blog began around my journey through the wonderful MFA program at Lesley University College of Art and Design; I graduated in 2019. My work interrogates ideas around place: what makes a place feel like home, what gives comfort or discomfort. I am intrigued by long history of a place and questions of whose footsteps we follow and what can be learned from a place.