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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century