Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.

Priceless moments in education – the Jean Paul Gaultier dress

Once in a while something in the classroom happens that is just priceless. It might be the timing of a joke, throwing a ball of paper over your shoulder and across the classroom straight into the bin or a truly insightful comment of a pupil. Yesterday produced such a moment…..

It concerned a fashion assignment my fourth year pupils (15-16 year olds) are working on. A number of the girls were sitting at computers doing some preparatory work by researching nineteenth century fashion and contemporary designs. I don’t have any fashion orientated training, more a passing interest that has recently been stimulated visits to a number of museum fashion exhibitions. To my pupils, I think I am very much their art teacher and one with a particular interest in painting and sculpture.

As I walked around watching the pupils trawl through hundreds of photographs on a variety of sites one of the pupils stopped me and pointed to an image of a model in a dress on the screen.

gaultier“Do you know by any chance know who designed this dress sir?” she asked.

I looked over her shoulder, I could hardly believe the coincidence, it was one of the gowns that I had seen last year in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague last year, and better still, I did remember who’s it was!

I paused for a moment and said, “yes, that’s by Jean Paul Gaultier”, carefully saying nothing more, and definitely not referring to the source of my knowledge. A couple of searches and clicks later and the pupil concerned had double checked my identification and found it to be true.

The best bit though was when the girl sitting next to her (and a bit of a fashion expert herself) slowly turned and looked up at me and said, “and you can tell that just by looking at the dress?”

“Yes” I said and walked away. As I moved on I glanced back, the look of dumbfounded amazement on the second girl’s face was truly priceless!

They say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but equally, a little knowledge , used sparingly can be a truly wonderful thing. You can walk away appearing to be, if not a genius, at least a contemporary fashion expert.

Further fashion related posts:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/is-fashion-becoming-my-thing/

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/fashion-and-storylines/

Is fashion becoming my thing?

Fashion design is not my specific area of specialization. I was trained as a painter and that remains my man focus of interest. Having said that, one of the great luxuries of my education job here in the Netherlands is that I get to teach the subject known as Culturele en kunstzinnige vorming (CKV), which roughly translates as artistic and cultural education. It is a fantastic subject that takes me and the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach into the broadest range of cultural disciplines such as film, theatre, dance, music, photography, architecture, applied art, design and visual arts. Over the fourteen years that I have now taught CKV it has lead me to widen my own cultural knowledge base into many new areas.

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It is with this process of continual self-education I travelled to The Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam to see The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition. As I wrote earlier fashion design isn’t specifically my thing, although I have to admit to a growing interest and have just completed writing a module of lesson material for my CKV lessons that I’ll be working with after the Christmas break. The exhibition today was an opportunity to top up on ideas that I might be able to make use of in my lessons.

A particular challenge in this area is to break through the inherent conservatism in the pupils’ view of the world. So many of them in their approaches are anything but radical. IMG_0427 (1)They like what they know any they know what they like!  Forcing them to consider things outside of their normal range of experience is the challenge here. I want them to think creatively and experimentally, the idea will ultimately to produce a design idea, although I should add, not and actual item of clothing.

Partly inspired by another recent exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague entitled Romantic Fashions my idea is set the challenge of producing a hybrid item of clothing that combines the clothes of today with elements of fashion from the nineteenth century. There are examples of designers who have done just that already, people such a, Vivian Westwood and Jan Taminiau. But in taking these frames of fashion reference I am attempting to reduce the over whelming range of references that are potentially on offer to the pupils.  They will learn a little about the cultural world of 150 years ago and they will relate it to the world that they know today.

It is at this point that the exhibition in Rotterdam today will be useful. Pupils know what to expect in the high street in 2014 generally, they might even know a little about what appears on the catwalks of Paris and Milan, but much of what was visible today was altogether more experimental and will challenge them to think further and hopefully creatively when combining the designs of the past with the sensibilities and materials on offer today.

Mark Rothko in the ‘side chapels’ of Gemeentemuseum in The Hague

I studied in London and as an art student made regular trips to the Tate as it was then known, before the setting up of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. On these trips I became only too familiar with the brooding presence of the large dark reddish canvases of the Seagram murals made in the late 1950s. These are I think the only examples of Rothko’s work that I have seen clustered together in a group, otherwise it has generally been just isolated artworks that I have come across in various European museums and galleries. So the chance to see a whole show of his work in the Gemeentemuseum, alongside the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, an artist who in many ways paved the way for Rothko and the other abstract expressionists, has been noted down in my diary for some time.

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The Tate paintings ooze a depth in their mood and indeed in their colour. I am very familiar with Rothko’s work from secondary sources such as the internet and books. I knew that there are plenty of paintings that make use of a higher range of palette, and yet, this was still the surprise in The Hague exhibition.  Often there is that familiar depth in the tone and the colour, but layer on top of this is are second or third colours that deliver a feathery intensity shimmering in the indistinct ground colour.

Also included in the exhibition are a number of works on paper made close to the end of the artist’s life. One in particular that catches the attention is an untitled work from 1968. It’s a relatively large piece, on a sheet of paper that is maybe 140×100 cm and shows a ground of two deep shades of blue, part of which edges towards black. The second quarter of the painting moving downwards glows an almost golden yellow. It’s a composition that seems to sum up so much of Rothko’s work, a deep, almost menacing depth, complimented so often with areas that lift themselves out, calling for our attention. The painting has a quite heavily worked surface, and in some ways gives away more of the artist’s process than many of the larger canvases do, we clearly see the traces of the artist’s brushes as he works across the surface. This particular work, hangs near a doorway, not necessarily in a space that lends itself to catching the museum viewer, yet it is fascinating to watch it do just that as visitors move from one space to another.

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The spaces of the Gemeentemuseum lend themselves enormously to the show.  There are rooms that display the work in groups, with uncluttered space to move around in, the classical museum experience if you like. But there are a number of spaces that function almost as a side chapel in a cathedral and have been given a single large Rothko canvas, with a seat in front of it, an ideal space for contemplation.