Alice Neel: Works on Paper, Victoria Miro, London

4.00

The baring of lives and souls

Drawing," wrote the American painter, Alice Neel, "is the discipline of art." One of the great painters of the twentieth century, she was a pioneer among women artists; a representational painter of people, landscape and still life in an era dominated by the essentially masculine language of Abstract Expressionism.

Clement Greenberg, the high priest of formalism, had insisted that the canvas be freed of all personal narrative, autobiography and literary content. Influenced by Expressionism and Realism, Neel overtly disobeyed this mantra of Modernism. Against this background of heroic male art she made sense of the world through an essentially female gaze that encompassed the body and personal emotion. She was not, she said, against abstraction, but could not stand that the Abstractionists had "pushed all the other pushcarts off the streets."

What she produced were images of friends and lovers, poets, celebrities and the poor – Hispanics, blacks and the elderly – from Spanish Harlem where she chose to live in line with her strong social conscience and left-wing beliefs. Her cast of characters was portrayed with an incisiveness that was never clouded by sentimentality or illusion. Through the body's idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities she revealed, with searing honesty, the psyche and soul of her sitters, their suffering, endurance, courage and insecurities hidden behind carefully constructed facades. What she captured, in a form of "internal portraiture", was the inner texture of their lives. "Every person," she said, "is a new universe, unique with its own laws emphasising some belief, a phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by."

Now there is a chance to see the first exhibition in this country of her works on paper. Her pencil, ink and gouache compositions from the 1930s to the 1960s include both individual portraits and closely observed scenes of daily urban life. "I love you Harlem," she wrote in her diary, "your life, your pregnant women, your relief lines outside the bank full of women who no dress in Saks Fifth Avenue would fit."

Her stark graphic drawings include a row of old women with dishevelled hair and beaky profiles waiting patiently in line, no doubt, for hand-outs, and another of three black women on a bus. With its acute observation it is a prize example both of her compassion and honesty. Executed in soft pencil on paper it shows them in their veiled church hats and gloves staring out at the viewer, isolated, proud, dignified and afraid. Fundamental to her expression is her use of line, which at first glance appears casual but is, in fact, the product of great awareness. In these drawings we are allowed to see a record of her creative process in its most immediate and intimate form.

There is also an intense life-sized drawing of the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich with her awkward face and two ink-on-paper portrayals of Walter Gutman, the New York stock- market analyst and patron of underground art films that are almost caricatures, showing him as a squat impresario dressed in a tight raincoat holding his homburg, with a lid of lank hair flipped over his balding patch.

She also has great sensitivity to children. Her pencil drawing of a young girl done in 1930 not only evokes the finesse of Picasso's early drawings but reveals the vulnerability of this short moment just before puberty. With her hair in plaits, and dressed in a polka- dot swimsuit that reveals her still flat nipples, the girl in this little drawing is a study in poignancy, while the children in the park, executed in pen and ink, have the blank stares and empty eyes that evoke the existential alienation of Munch and emphasise Neel's belief that "Death, the great void of life, hangs over everyone."

Until 14 May

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick