The Barbican has given over its entire art gallery to one person, a woman who painted provocate nudes and was investigated by the FBI for her communist sympathies.

Alice Neel was born in 1900 in Pennsylvania, at a time when women were expected to do the womanly thing and not have ambitions of their own. But Alice wanted to be an artist, and took night school classes while working as a civil servant, graduating in 1925.

She moved, with her new husband to Cuba and although not there for long, the visit was to have a long impact on her life, her politics and her art.

She is notable for her portraits, especially in the later years of her career when portraiture was rather dismissed as an art form. She’s also not entirely safe, often painting very explicit nudes, and one painting was famously banned from public view for 30 years.

The one time she didn’t paint nudes was during the Great Depression, when the government funded artists to produce art, so long as it wasn’t nude. She made a study of poverty and the deprivation of the times, a far cry from the uplifting works that were the mainstay of her contemporaries.

The exhibition at the Barbican opens with, of course, a nude — but it’s a self-portrait of the artist aged 80. After that, it returns to a more conventional chronological display, with paintings from her life in Havana, New York and her many commissions from friends and notable people.

Andy Warhol is here, but shown fragile with the scars from an attempted assassination, and the deterioration of age on display in a way the famously dandyish artist rarely exhibited in later life.

Although the nudes are prominent and at times blatantly shocking, they make up a minority of the show, with the rest being her studies of people, often very ordinary folk who she saw around her and offered to paint. It’s a window into the past more ordinary, of people beaten down by recessions and poverty, but still exuding a personal pride in how they survive.

As a life-long communist, she struggled during the early Cold War and was at times shunned for her political views, but she started to make a comeback towards the end of the 1960s, and was finally recognised as a leading artist of the time in the late 1970s. She was awarded the National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement by President Carter in 1979.

As an exhibition, it’s a bit marmite, in that you’ll either come away entranced or wondering what on earth you just saw.

The exhibition, Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 21st May 2023.

  • Adult: £18
  • Concessions: £13
  • Children (<14): Free

You’re recommended to book tickets in advance from here.


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