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.

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I have an over optimistic view of time – until I discover how long things take to do

I have a very positive, some might say over optimistic, view of time. This is particularly true of making things myself or getting others to be creative in my role as a teacher.  I always underestimate the time it takes to do practical tasks. Generally I’m really pretty good with my hands, I do work fast, in the kitchen, when painting the stairs or making a drawing. But if I’m pushed to pin down how long a given task is going to take I almost always under estimate.

This is also true when planning practical art assignments for the various groups I teach.  The initial idea might have been for say six one hour long sessions. We get that far and the task simply doesn’t look finished to me. Do we stop and move on, well no, almost never. One of the most important lessons I learnt from one of my lecturers at art school was simply that too many good ideas weren’t ever pushed to a conclusion they deserve. So with this in mind the project invariably gets extended. One of the advantages you might say of the art teacher, time has a more elastic quality in my planning, but so does the curriculum.

double portraits

The pupil work shown here is a good example of work time extensions being necessary. Yes it was a fairly complex assignment for my third years (14-15 year olds). Yes I like to push them hard and to build up an image of complexity and yes collage is a working method that kind of invites dithering and hesitation at times. But still I imagine each time that they can do the work in half the time it actually takes!

Larger than the sum of the parts….in the classroom

Image

Most of the classes that I teach are relatively large. Mostly they are between twenty five and thirty pupils, more often than not, closer to the thirty.  That presents plenty of problems at times, mostly relating to the basic practicalities of working with large groups and messy materials or difficult to use tools. Also, simply getting around a class of thirty a offering some individual guidance in a lesson of sixty minutes is challenging to say the least.

There are however also advantages, and as far as I’m concerned, working on large scale group works are one of the them. There are so many good reasons for doing it once in a while with any class or group of people you might be working with. Consider the following points:

  • The strength of building on the group identity, a team working together as a number of ‘social’ advantages
  • The lower achievers share a chance to participate and have a place in a greater whole, my experience is that this works particularly well
  • Pupils like to help and support each other for the benefit of the group work
  • Large artworks do simply have a ‘wow’ factor. In the first instance that can be fantastic in the classroom as pupils realize that something a bit special is coming together, there can be a quite tangible buzz of success. Outside of the classroom larger works do tend to put the activities of the art department very much in public view, and that can only be a good thing!
  • It can also have the positive spin off that the more able pupils realize for themselves that they too might actually be able to try some more ambitious scale work.

Distorted faces group projects

Group work certainly isn’t something to use very week, but it does offer some great possibilities. I once watched a Tim Rollins workshop with some art students, it was one of the key moments that moved me towards working in art education and at the same time was a fantastic demonstration of what can be achieved in group work in the arts.

The film below is pretty old but for any one interested in art or education it is certainly an interesting watch.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

 

 

The Most beautiful People Project

beautiful peopleThe Most beautiful People Project

In secondary education we work with young people who take more photographs than any previous generation and discard an equally large number of images.  The idea that the photographic image can have a sense of design, a sense of meaning or of social context or importance is often quickly lost.

A number years ago I saw (together with two of the classes I taught at the time) an exhibition of the work of Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski and his ‘Most Beautiful People’ project.  I was instantly taken by the simplicity of the project and saw clearly how the same simplicity and the social edge the project has attracted the attention of the pupils.  In the fixed format of three photographs and a simple series of questions so much information is given.  It invites us to ask the same questions about ourselves and make comparisons.

The differences between our own situation and others on the other side of the world are often huge, but when the social ‘mirror’ is turned, we all want to see ourselves and be seen by others as beautiful seems quite universal.  Some of the reasons people give as to why they consider themselves to be a beautiful person are hugely revealing, others are humorous and still others are simply familiar.

The accompanying photographs tell their own stories and provide the ideal springboard for a relatively simple schools photography project.  I stick to the exact same format with my own pupils, having shown them the work of Szulc Krzyzanowski.  The photographs are always interesting to see, and once in a while someone comes up with a real gem of a reason as to why they see themselves to be beautiful,