Ginny 1984 by Alice Neel

Ginny, 1984 (scanned from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life — page 219)

Collecting Souls NeelAt the end of the previous post I indicated that I would be moving onto the Expressionist leanings of Neel’s art, primed by comments in Collecting souls. For example,[1] ‘[as] Alice withdrew increasingly into herself, her paintings exploded in expressiveness.’

She resisted what the Belchers term ‘abstract expressionism.’[2] They go on to explain why:

Alice remained committed to the human figure as the centre of her art. Her faithfulness to a belief in the importance of the human being stretched beyond an ideology of humanism. To Alice, artists have an obligation to history, not just to record, but to interpret the richness and complexity of the life of the period in which they live. She believed “that more is communicated about an area and its effect on people by a revealing portrait than in any other way.”

She persisted down this path even though she knew that ‘figures were not commercially viable.’

In Painter of Modern Life, Petra Gördüren in her chapter on Emotional Values lists her expressionist influences:[3]

The founding figures of modern art – Vincent Van Gough, Munch and Oscar Kokoschka – are primarily cited in this context, artists who, like Neel, understood painting as the expression of subjective sensations and did not hesitate to explore the depths of the human psyche.

Her expressionism seems to blend with her politics, into something I am tempted to label ‘social expressionism,’ as Gördüren seems to hint at when she writes (my emphasis):[4] ‘Neel established herself as a painter of the very personally felt social realism that dominated American painting of the late 1920s and the 1930s.’ Laura Stamps in her chapter, A Marxist girl on Capitalism, points very much in the same direction:[5] ‘She developed her characteristic style, tending on the one hand towards Expressionism, and yet also towards the documentary.’

Following up on my discussion in the previous post, this appears to be also linked with her tendency towards projection, as Stamps is strongly indicating: [6]

She wanted to capture her subjects psychologically and socially… Neel also deliberately projected her own desires and fears onto her subject. She in fact chose portraiture in order to enter into dialogue with “the other.”

The Belchers quote the words[7] ‘capturing of things essential’ to describe this quality in Neel’s work, and refer to[8] what seems to be ‘an unusual mingling of social commitment and subjective intensity.’ They attribute her motivation for this blending of personal and political to her being[9] ‘an individual who had suffered greatly’ so she therefore ‘painted pictures that communicated one of her core creeds, that “no one on earth should suffer.”’ A telling way to summarise this can be found in Laura Stamps A Marxist girl on Capitalism:[10]

She was working on something that, though it clearly concerned herself, also transcended the personal.

Closing Comments

Painter of Modern Life NeelIn Painter of Modern Life, in the Catalogue of Works, we find an appropriate portrait on which to end this sequence: Ginny, 1984:[11]

Painted during the winter in Vermont, it depicts Ginny in mourning for her mother who died the previous year, and was painted at the time when Neel knew her number was up, for she had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. . . . It is clearly an expression of endings,… an image of such power and subtlety that it appeared to subsume the knowledge of a lifetime of painting.

A perfect example, in fact, of the empathic projection I have been attributing to her most emotionally powerful portraits.

I can’t quite avoid being triggered into reflections here about van Gogh. When I am confronted by his life and his greatest art I find myself asking, ‘How is it that we so often find such life-enhancing beauty flowering from the soil of such peace-destroying torment?’ It gives Dylan’s dictum that ‘behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain,’ a strange relevance. Behind the obvious meaning that encounters with beauty create a fear of their loss, there lurks the idea that out of some kind of pain everything of beauty flowers.

With Neel, though, you almost always see the pain behind the beauty: not so with van Gogh’s greatest work, where the beauty often masks the pain.

With both van Gogh and Neel, of course, we need to be concerned at least as much by the pain they caused to others as by the pain of others they capture in paint.

Alice Neel, at least to a significant extent, saw herself as painting to draw attention to the costs of inequality and discrimination, and is now credited with having succeeded in doing so. From a Bahá’í point of view one of the main purposes of art is to enhance consciousness, not least in terms of raising our awareness of our interconnectedness with all humanity, in fact with all forms of life, as well as widening our compass of compassion. This seems to have been the main purpose of Neel in amassing this collection of souls. I am not sure she would have been aware that this title for her work had been in a way anticipated by a woman poet of the 19th Century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she wrote in her narrative masterpiece Aurora Leigh (First Book – lines 1097-98):

. . . .paint a body well

You paint a soul by implication.

Does the extent to which she succeeded in doing so justify the pain she caused others by focusing on her art and neglecting them? Are we facing a Dickensian problem here – and I don’t mean the Jellybys in Bleak House – I am referring to the novelist’s total lack of care and consideration for his wife, the mother of his children, whom he demonised, and deprived of contact with them, while at the same time exploring Scroogian conversions to caring and compassion, and advocating the mantra that ‘humanity is our business.’

Maybe we all face dilemmas of this kind, for example when we try to balance the needs of work and family. In the process we all make mistakes, perhaps only realising too late that we have spent too little time with our children in pursuit of our career, because of what we saw as our vocation.

Getting the balance right is a difficult art in itself, from the mastery of which our devotion to what we see as our real work in life can permanently derail us.

So, I am not keen to leap to judgement against Alice Neel, and condemn her for the possibly negative impact of her art on those closest to her who needed her most. I don’t see her as being as ruthless and deliberate as Dickens was, in defaming his wife to disguise his own involvement with his end of life romance. She was, as we have seen, to some degree tormented by the conflict between her art and the needs of others. Possibly the damage she caused was more than compensated for by how the suffering she depicted may have lifted her contemporaries’ attitudes to the left-behind and deliberately excluded to a higher and more compassionate level.

The Belchers seem to think so:[12]

. . . . hundreds of canvases, a buried treasure trove, chronicled Alice’s America over forty years, and even if any one portrait was not enough to capture the attention of the new category of viewers, the ‘oeuvre’ as a whole was compelling. . . . One art historian wrote that Alice had made portraiture “something more generous, more democratic and more expressive than it had been before . . .”

I can only suggest that this is a judgement call we each will always have to make for ourselves, both about the balance of our own lives as well as that of any public figure we admire and respect, be they artist, politician, activist, philanthropist, parent, partner or whatever else.

Anyway, I am grateful to these books on Neel’s life and art for forcing me to confront this important issue in all its complexity. Both books are definitely worth reading carefully, and her paintings will reward equally close attention, I believe.


[1]. Collecting souls – page 123

[2]. Ibid. – Page 201

[3]. Painter of Modern Life – page 31.

[4]. Ibid. – page 38.

[5]. Ibid. – page 41.

[6]. Ibid. — page 44.

[7]. Collecting souls – page 80.

[8]. Ibid. – page 172.

[9]. Ibid. – page 176.

[10]. Painter of Modern Life – page 42.

[11]. Ibid. – page 228.

[12] Collecting Souls – page 240.

. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

Given my latest sequence on Alice Neel, it seemed a good time to republish this one on Edvard Munch.

Moving on from a focus on his life to Munch’s art, we can see it was rooted in sensory experience. The surroundings that triggered The Scream, which are described in Sue Prideaux’s excellent biography, illustrate this powerfully (page 151]:

The main slaughterhouse for the city was up there, and so was the hospital, in which Laura [his sister] had been incarcerated. He had probably gone up there to visit her; there was no other discernible reason. The screams of the animals being slaughtered in combination with the screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear.

However, the end result was meant to transcend even the most powerful transitory material details that were its origin. The term ‘soul painting,’ used frequently by Munch, captures this intention.

What did he mean by that exactly?

Soul painting

Perhaps it is no real surprise to find in a letter from one of his currently most admired precursors an overlap in the language both Munch and van Gogh use. Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272):

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

This is not just a one-off from van Gogh. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

In a way though, Munch seems to have taken this to another level. As Prideaux puts it, when she describes the nature of Munch’s influence once his fame was established (page 238):

‘Soul paintings’ galore were created in the wake of ‘the powerful dreamer’ . . .

How can we explain what ‘soul’ painting is? Not very easily as it turns out, but this is my best shot.

It’s about truth (page viii) ‘I have always thought and felt that my art might be able to help others to clarify their own search for truth,’ and meaning (page 35) ‘In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.’ It entails penetrating beneath the surface of things (page 169): Réja, an art critic referred to Munch’s ‘ability to pierce the exterior.’ Some of his potential subjects feared this ability, one in particular refusing to be painted, saying (page 268): ‘He sees right through us and turns us inside out.’

This does not mean he ignores the exterior (page 257): ‘his own constant struggle as an artist [lies] in the depiction of the inner by means of the outer . . .’ This was as true at the end of 1904 before his breakdown, as it was after it (page 237):

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

The Night in Saint-Cloud (scanned from the Taschen edition)

He turned aspects of the physical environment into a trope that is repeated when needed (page 133):

[He] set The Kiss in the same corner as the blue-hazed room in Saint-Cloud where he had set the figure of himself/his father in The Night in Saint-Cloud. The room had now become spiritualised into a universal chamber of his brain, a location he could revisit for the rest of his life.

And memory plays an important role in this process (page 305):

‘I paint not what I see but what I saw’ was an oft-repeated maxim that he used to indicate the vital role that the depths of memory played in transforming transitory insights into timeless themes.

When he succeeds the word ‘soul’ keeps appearing. Even a painting has one, which suggests we shouldn’t always take his use of the term too literally (page 231): ‘Each physical painting aspires towards its idea, its eternal prototype, which may be called its soul.’

Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (page 201):

‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

Not surprisingly his influence lived on after his death.

For instance, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Alice Neel termed herself a ‘collector of souls,’ perhaps indirectly acknowledging Munch, whom she admired even though she explicitly denied he had influenced her early work (Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life– edited by Jeremy Lewison – page 31:

‘But Munch I never saw in the beginning. I did a painting, and you’ll swear that I was influenced by Munch, but I hadn’t even heard of him yet.’

It is also true to say that the word ‘soul’ in this context has not lost all its spiritual significance. More on Munch and his spiritual take on things next time.

Ginny by Alice Neel (from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life)

Munch’s Inger in Black and Violet (from the Taschen edition)

Mother and Child Havana

Mother and Child (Havana), 1926 (scanned from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life – page 71)

Collecting Souls NeelI closed the previous post with the reflection that, in perhaps a similar way to van Gogh, her art was her most constructive way of connecting with life: in her case, this was mainly with people:[1] ‘Alice Neel once said that, for her, painting was a way of reducing the distance between herself and others, and the world around her. It enabled her to express a deeper sense of experience: [2] ‘Neel repeatedly described the absolute necessity of visualising an inner sensation, and inner reality, as the motivation for her tireless productivity as an artist.’

There is a wealth of evidence to support the view that she had a special affinity with those our unequal society has left behind, what in Collecting souls is called ‘opposites’. The Belchers list her typical subjects in Havana as ‘beggars, poor mothers, and blank-eyed children, black dancers, and quietly desperate old people.’[3] It’s perhaps worth noting that Naifeh and White Smith in their biography of van Gogh describe him as equally fixated on the same strata of his society in his early work: he did not display the same degree of understanding as Neel seems to have done, and one reason he chose such models may have been that he could afford no others.

Neel’s motivation seems to have been more political: painting the left behind was her way of ‘condemning the society that produced outcasts.’[4] She joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, as ‘the thing to do for anyone with a social conscience.’[5] One of her admirers called her a ‘poet of the ugly, the lyrical, the down and out, bohemian to the core.’[6]This relates to the description of someone else who knew her:[7]

“You have done in art what writers do in the characterisation in a novel. You have called yourself a collector of souls; you have said that you would like to make the world happy.

There seemed to have been other factors at play as well. Lewison, in his introduction to Painter of Modern Life[8], mentions the possibility that in her art ‘a new humanism was another way of maintaining or developing painting’s relevance post photography.’ Annamari Vänskä, in her article in the same volume, describes ‘the driving theme of Neel’s output is her social consciousness’ and argues that she ‘saw art as an arena for social criticism .’[9]

There is another possibility, which complements rather than contradicts this perspective. In the Catalogue of Works which completes the volume Painter of Modern Life the commentary on the painting Mother and Child refers to Neel’s ‘lifelong interest in depicting mothers with their children.’ This sits easily alongside what the book describes as Neel’s ‘great empathy for the disadvantaged.’ [10]

However, her interest in this theme of motherhood to me also implies that there might also be an element of projection in Neel’s portrayals of her subjects. This could easily combine most of the time with a degree of genuine sympathy with the subject. It may even have helped enhance the emotional impact of her portraits.

There will be more to say on this matter when I come to discuss her choice of Expressionism. For now, suffice it to add, her attitude to motherhood was in no way sentimental. She painted it as it was in a way that was anticipated by Munch ‘when he wrote in a notebook around 1889: “No longer should you paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. They must be living beings who breathe and feel and love and suffer.”’[11]

The Catalogue continues to highlight how she conveys ‘a sense of adversity experienced by the poor in a period of high capitalism,’[12] and, for example, portrays ‘an African-American man with his Caucasian or Hispanic girlfriend in 1954’ as ‘a statement of solidarity with a cause.’[13]

Death, as I mentioned in the first post of this sequence, was also a constant preoccupation, not least because of her loss of Santillana, ‘as it had been in the mind of her mother following the death of her child, Hartley, from diphtheria before Alice was born.’[14] We will see later a powerful example, painted towards the end of her life, where she captures the grief of a young woman for the death of her mother, even as she paints that portrait in full knowledge of her own diagnosis of terminal cancer – a perfect fusion of empathy and projection.

The issue of projection was almost certainly not restricted only to motherhood and death. In the Catalogue of Works there is a rare self-portrait painted late in life. The comment on it contains an illuminating sentence:[15]

Neel was, in general, uninterested in self-portraits, preferring to project herself into others; thus in some senses her portraits of other people contain elements of her own character.

We are left at this point with a quandary. Did she choose the subjects of her paintings because she genuinely felt for them or because she perceived them as reflections of herself, or possibly both?

I think the evidence suggests it was a bit of both. The Belchers’ view is that:[16]

. . . as an individual who had suffered greatly, she painted pictures that communicated one of her core creeds, that “no one on earth should suffer.”

and mention that:[17]

art historians have noted simply that her paintings during this period were marked by “an unusual mingling of social commitment and subjective intensity.“

Whatever the exact truth of that may be, her work became more clearly expressive, partly as a result of an enforced change of medium:[18]

Her other discovery, during those months and the following year, was also the result of her poverty. She learnt to paint, expressively and with control, in watercolours… If Alice had been able to stay with oils alone, she might not have developed the crisp new style with the bold lines that became her hallmark after 1930.

Alongside that,[19] ‘[as] Alice withdrew increasingly into herself, her paintings exploded in expressiveness. Her line grew bolder as her morbid preoccupation with herself grew stronger.’

More of that next time when we come to consider in more detail her choice of Expressionism.


[1]. Painter of Modern Life – page 46.

[2]. Ibid. – Page 38.

[3]. Collecting Souls – page 78.

[4]. Ibid. – page 80.

[5]. Ibid. – page 159.

[6]. Ibid. – page 242.

[7]. Ibid. – page 247.

[8]. Painter of Modern Life – page 28.

[9]. Ibid. – page 58.

[10]. Ibid. – page 70.

[11]. Ibid. – page 166.

[12]. Ibid. – page 112.

[13]. Ibid. – page 132.

[14]. Ibid. – page 124.

[15]. Ibid. – page 206.

[16]. Collecting Souls – page 176.

[17]. Ibid. –  page 172.

[18] Ibid. – page 88.

[19] Ibid. – page 123.

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine– page 88)

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

(Prideaux – page 237)

Given my latest sequence on Alice Neel, it seemed a good time to republish this one on Edvard Munch.

More about the Man

In the previous post I referred to key early losses that impacted heavily on Munch throughout his life, and left their mark on his art as well. There is more needs to be said about his personality, scarred as it was by these tragedies, and the ways he tried to manage his post-traumatic reactions.

His relationships with others were fraught, especially perhaps with women, as Prideaux explains in her biography (page 191): ‘. . . he fled if [women] got too close . . . but if they did not, then he felt alone.’

He felt that his art had benefited from his troubled state of mind (page 229):

‘I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.’

He makes the link quite explicit (page 251):

‘My art is grounded in reflections over being different to others. My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’

A key and traumatic early relationship coloured his attitude to women for the rest of his life and culminated in a shooting which damaged the finger of his left hand (page 227):

For the rest of his life he hid his finger. . . . The feeling that his life had been marked by a heavy doom from birth had been greatly increased by this visible sign.

This was not the end of the impact of a gun on his life. Drink contributed to poor impulse control so that, after a drunken spat with an artist he was painting, he later fired at him with a shotgun from the window of his house. He missed (page 237): ’Trembling, he withdrew [the gun], realising how close he had come to murder.’

Alcohol, as well as frequenting prostitutes and heavy smoking, were taking their toll. In the end he broke down completely (page 248): ‘[Jacobsen, his psychiatrist,] correctly diagnosed Munch as suffering from dementia paralytica as a result of alcohol poisoning.’

As a result of his, for that time, enlightened treatment (page 251):

He accepted the idea that from now on he would have to confine himself to ‘tobacco-free cigars alcohol-free drinks and poison-free women.’

He was afraid that his sanity had been bought at the price of his art: more of that later. He used novel ways of activating his creativity (page 294):

The dissection of [a] cadaver was not the only time Munch had felt the need to shock himself during the later part of his life… Aware of the danger of lapsing into the emotional bluntness of middle age… he requested a butcher if he might be present while a bull was slaughtered.

When his end approached, his characteristic stubborn curiosity determined his behaviour (page 323):

He was very adamant that he did not want to die in his sleep; he wanted consciously to experience the last struggle.

Hopefully that has conveyed some sense of how powerfully Prideaux confronts us with Munch, the man.

Now for the treatment of how Munch felt this all related to his art, before we focus in the final post on his art and the explicit ideas behind it.

Anxiety from The Frieze of Life (scanned from Prideaux’s biography)

His Life in his Art

Prideaux’s introduction flags up where this is likely to take us now (page vii):

Munch was twenty-eight when he embarked on the lifelong effort to paint his soul’s diary . . [something which] Munch described [as] ‘the terrible struggle inside the cage of the soul.’

She also highlights his high regard for a Russian writer in this respect (page 49):

‘No one in art,’ he told a friend, ‘has yet penetrated as far as Dostoevsky into the mystical realms of the soul…’ [T]hroughout Edvard’s life, Dostoevsky was the writer of greatest importance to him. . . [He] succeeded in conveying in parallel the outer and the inner life. This was exactly what Edvard wanted to achieve with paint. ‘Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I was trying to dissect souls.’

The Frieze of Life, a key body of work (page 64) is ‘a sequence of paintings showing the progress of a soul through life,’ fulfilling his ambition (page 81) ‘to paint soul art.’

She goes into more detail than is possible here into two key experiences in about 1890 (pages 118-120):

Two intensely private and ecstatic visions came to him in two separate moments of mystical transport . .

He first came as he ascended the sun-warmed hill of Saint-Cloud. . . . He perceived [a cock’s crow, smoked dissolving into nothing and green shoots appearing] ‘as metamorphoses. How foolish to deny the existence of the soul.’

The second vision came in altogether darker circumstances [involving a Spanish dancer. He concluded as a result] he would paint themes that were timeless, personal, and in some manner sacred; pictures in which could be read the psychological reality of man’s connection to the world-soul that he had glimpsed from the sunlit hillside and in this fusion of music and colour.

It helped shape what turned out to be a long-term project, perhaps lasting the whole of his life in some respects (page 132):

He had been thinking for a long time about the concept of a series of paintings depicting the secret life of the soul.

Self=portrait with wine bottle (scanned from the Taschen edition)

Discussions of the self-portrait he painted with a bottle of wine nearby have interpreted the two waiters springing out of his shoulders as symbolising his state of mind. He was deeply divided as a human being (page 228): ‘My soul is like two wild birds, each flying in its own direction.’ I’m no stranger to a divided mind as my sequence about my Parliament of Selves testifies, which obviously served to increase my interest in Munch.

It is not surprising, given this inner split, that conflict should be a key element in his work when it was so rooted in his deepest experience of self (page 254):

‘I am making a study of the soul, as I can observe myself closely and use myself as an anatomical testing ground for this soul study. The main thing is to make an art work and a soul study…

Munch’s later reading perhaps gives some sense of that this might have been like for him (page 292):

Ludvig Ravensberg noted that Munch was reading Plato’s Phaedrus at the time. A central image of the text is that of the soul as two horses harnessed together. One is light and seeks to rise upward, while the other is a dark and pulls downwards. [The driver] seeks to control the balance between two conflicting impulses in the soul.

A sense of divisions within is not rare and not restricted to creative artists, as my own experience testifies. However, it is perhaps worth flagging up two other examples of this phenomenon in highly creative people. I’ve explored Pessoa’s experience of this at some length elsewhere on this blog. Briefly for present purposes, in a post of 2016, I wrote:

For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.

What I had not remembered until yesterday, when I re-read the introduction Xon de Ros placed at the start of her book on Antonio Machado, that he also experienced a similar thing (pages 1-2):

 . . . His most memorable dramatis personae were not written for the theatre but for the press. These were his apocryphal creations, mainly Juan de Mairena and Abel Martín. . . . one of Mairena’s fragments [reads] ‘¿pensáis . . . que un hombre no puede llevar dentro de sí más de un poeta? Lo difícil sería lo contrario, que no llevase más que uno.’ [do you think . . . that a man cannot carry more than one poet inside? The opposite would be what is difficult, that he doesn’t carry more than one.]

Machado specifically refers to the ‘essential heterogeneity of being.’ From a spiritual point of view this raises interesting questions which I have explored elsewhere and need not be investigated here. What is intriguing is why this heterogeneity has only relatively recently been reflected so explicitly by creative artists and writers.

Perhaps we are now ready to look more closely at the art, rather than the life. This could be shaping up to be the most time I’ve spent blogging about a painter since the Van Gogh sequence.

Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews

Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews, 1972 (scanned from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life – page 191)

Collecting Souls NeelI am going to leap to rather later in her life to gain an understanding of where her attempt to deal with the conflict between art and life described in the first post led her. We’ll see whether she was simply leaping out of a frying pan into a fire, or whether something more constructive was in process.

In spite of being clearly drawn towards social causes, she was not a ‘joiner,’ as I have mentioned already in the first post. She seemed instead to be ‘a loner whom events pressed for commitment’ but ‘her real commitment’ was ‘on canvas and not in cabals or on committees.’[1]

From 1936 until the end of 1941, she ‘had lived with two different men, [and] had a son by each.’ Her explanation for why her life was ‘so out of hand . . . was her complete devotion to her art. She consciously created her art; the rest of her life just happened.’[2] Her relationships with men were hardly ideal. When Spanish Harlem was her home, she lived with Sam Brody, who was ‘[s]elfish and quarrelsome’ and even ‘sometimes violent.’ Her relationship with Hartley, her second son by Sam, was ‘complex and difficult’ for the next seventeen years.[3]

But more difficult even than all that, by her own account, was ‘living with the selfishness that painting demanded.’[4] She said that ‘to be an artist, one must have the will of the devil.’[5] Those who knew her described her as having a ‘tremendous ego,’ and beneath her ‘marked sweetness’ lurked undertones of ‘unpleasantness and a touch of paranoia.’[6] In summary, ‘She was becoming, to some, intolerably self-centred.’[7] In a commentary on her painting Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews, the adjective ‘narcissistic’ creeps into the mix.[8]

It’s not looking good on the basis of this, neither for her quality of life nor the nature of her character.

Neel with Santillana

Neel & Santillana at Belmar, New Jersey, 1928 (scanned from page 220, ‘Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life’)

The Mental Health cost

Possibly the worst of it was the impact of all this on her mental health. Santillana, her first child, died two weeks before her first birthday. Isabella, or as Carlos preferred to call her, Isabetta, was lost to her along with Carlos when they split. When she was asked once, later in life, what caused her breakdown, she did not mention any of that:[9]

… But when she was honest with herself, she was able to admit that she had reached the point when she was no longer able to cope with the demands made on her by her passion for painting, her love of Carlos, her guilt over her children, and her dread of the future.

Moreover,[10] ‘It was in her mother’s home that she was made to feel irresponsible and selfish for wanting to paint.’

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the attitudes of the time both to women and to art, in the mental hospital, [11] ‘Whatever their technical diagnosis, they would not let her draw or paint. Instead, they wanted her to sew.’

And this is the point where I think we get at least a pointer towards the true nature of the issue here:[12]

. . . by denying her art, her psychiatrists denied a part of her.

. . . Would her treatment have been different if one of her psychiatrists had penetrated to her soul and there discovered a need for painting so great that it had consumed most of the rest of her identity?

If this description is true, what exactly does it imply?

Van Gogh Naifeh & SmithI am currently revisiting the life and art of van Gogh. The biography by Naifeh and White Smith suggests a more disturbingly intense but not dissimilar combination of factors: most pertinent here would be his mental instability, his fractious relationships with others and in the last quarter of his life the possibility that a complete and unqualified devotion to his art gave him at least in part the fulfilment he had been yearning for all his life, even though its true value went unrecognised in his lifetime.

And that last point, a dearth of recognition, was also true for Neel over many decades. She did at least live long enough, though, to earn respect as an artist before she died.

During the peak of her breakdown she contemplated suicide. What helped her transcend that darkness? Her art:[13]

. . . Alice decided, sometime in the spring of 1931, not to die. Virginia Woolf found no reason to live; Alice did.… Alice stumbled again onto art. She credited the rediscovery with saving her life.

It was not an easy path back to her vocation, but she trod it successfully:[14]

. . . .at the time she started to draw again, Alice was incontinent. But she had to learn to hold her bladder long enough to execute a drawing. It was torture, but she imposed this first of many disciplines upon herself in order to do art. From that point on, she decided to get well.

Painter of Modern Life NeelIn perhaps a similar way to van Gogh, her art was her most constructive way of connecting with life: in her case, this was with mainly people:[15] ‘Alice Neel once said that, for her, painting was a way of reducing the distance between herself and others, and the world around her. It enabled her to express a deeper sense of experience: [16] ‘Neel repeatedly described the absolute necessity of visualising an inner sensation, and inner reality, as the motivation for her tireless productivity as an artist.’

This is where it becomes difficult to dismiss her dedication to her art as merely narcissistic, while at the same time making it equally hard to excuse its cost to others, including her children, even though many of her paintings inspire the kind of compassion she sometimes seemed to lack. She’s by no means the only artist enacting this dilemma.

Which brings us to point at which I need to discuss her social conscience or should I say consciousness. I’ll save that for next time.


[1]. Collecting Souls – page 168.

[2]. Ibid. – page 177.

[3]. Ibid. – page 178-79.

[4]. Ibid. – page 202.

[5]. Ibid. – page 203.

[6]. Ibid. – page 204.

[7]. Ibid. – page 213.

[8]. Painter of Modern Life – page 190.

[9]. Collecting Souls – page 136.

[10]. Ibid. – page 137

[11]. Ibid. – page  139.

[12]. Ibid. – page 140.

[13]. Ibid. – pages 142-43.

[14]. Ibid. – page 143.

[15]. Painter of Modern Life – page 46.

[16]. Ibid. – Page 38.

How is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

Given my latest sequence on Alice Neel, it seemed a good time to republish this one on Edvard Munch.

The Trigger

Recently, an ITV documentary on the painter Edvard Munch highlighted the depth of my ignorance of the full extent of his achievements.

Until I saw the programme, I only knew of one painting by him. There are no prizes for guessing which painting I mean, and I am not going to insult anyone by spelling it out now.

The programme thrust powerful painting after powerful painting into my line of sight. How on earth, given my supposed interest in art and my undoubted knowledge of his existence, could I have failed for so long to discover his true value as an artist? We’ll come onto his failings as a human being soon enough: though they caused him great suffering, they helped fuel the intense creativity of his art.

My initial reaction, predictably, was to buy a book about him. Being unsure how this would all turn out, I chose cheaply and secured a copy of Ulrich Bischoff’s Munch for a mere £10.

It was well worth the investment. It contained some impactful reproductions of a few of his key paintings. What was lacking was an insightful account of the man.

I couldn’t help my attention being grabbed by coincidences of dates: he was born in 1863, the year Bahá’u’lláh declared his mission, and died in 1944, the anniversary of the Declaration of the Báb. These are of no real significance, but they augmented my interest none the less. His life spanned a period of great significance to me, including as it did the same two wars that deeply affected my parents and ending the year after I was born. That, as we shall see, he was affected all his life by the death of a sister, simply added to the magnetic attraction of his life to me. My childhood was overshadowed by the continuing grief of my parents for my sister, Mary, who had died four years before I was born. I wrote several poems on the subject.

I am flagging all that up in case it indicates a certain lack of objectivity in what is to follow.

There were a few scattered insights in Bischoff’s book, it’s true. For example, (page 8) he quotes Munch explaining the importance of apparently negative experiences in giving him a sense of direction: ‘Without fear and illness, my life would have been a boat without a rudder.’ He also had early experiences of death, far more intense than my own, who only knew of one death during my childhood, though it was a key one. He wrote (page 36): ‘I lead my life in the company of the dead.’ These included his mother, who died when he was five, and his sister, Sophie, who died when he was 15.

Bischoff did illuminate aspects of Munch’s art as well.

The Storm scanned from Bischoff’s book (Taschen)

He repeatedly uses a trope, of which I later learnt the full importance in understanding Munch (page 38). In his painting The Storm, ‘Munch has transfigured the seen world into a landscape of the soul,’ and (page 80) ‘for Munch, landscape always had to convey a message of human import: his visual idiom transformed the reproduction of landscape scenes into landscape of the soul.’ And finally, (page 82) ‘The details of Munch’s landscapes – trees, snow-covered hills, beaches or waves – were also symbols expressing a personal language of the soul.’ We’ll hear a lot more of the soul in a moment, with its significance extending beyond a relationship with landscape.

An earlier note I made, before even seeing the programme, prepared me for this. From some now unknown source I captured this: ‘He once wrote: “Just as Leonardo studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the soul.”

Munch, the man

I still can’t track down where I heard about Sue Prideaux’s biography of Munch. I noted it at the back of my pocketbook but I can’t find it anywhere in Bischoff’s book. Anyway, on a trip to Cardiff one weekend, I popped into Waterstones and there it was. I had no way of knowing, as I dithered about buying it, what an enthralling 328-page journey into another human being’s mind it would take me on.

Her stimulating focus on his mind and the insights his art gives us into the human condition is unfailing throughout the book. As early as page 11, discussing the painting Evening on Karl Johann Street, she writes, ‘faces shorthanded into near-skulls expressing the commonality of human loneliness that can never be shared . . .’

Evening on Karl Johan Street (scanned from Prideaux’s biography)

The origins of this pervasive mood were rooted in his youth and childhood (page 32):

Sophie’s death was a blow from which Edvard never fully recovered. A desolate longing for her remained all his life; he had lost his mother all over again. God had broken his promise.… the inutility of God and the inadequacy of Papa had been exposed in the face of the grim injustice of sickness and death.

This is again something that resonates with me: though my early experiences of hospitalisation were less traumatic they similarly dented my faith in God and in my parents.

The stress of his mother’s slow death from tuberculosis made his father prone to rages which led to beatings. The pressure was unremitting on Munch (page 37):

‘Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle,’ Edvard had written.

The disadvantages of this are all too obvious. There was a more positive side in the insights this darkness gave him (page 81-83):

Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

In addition, he developed, as he described it (page 106):

‘. . . a sensitivity to the metaphysical, to the paranormal influences to which we are all subject, even in this materialistic century.’

His position on this may have been somewhat more complex and inconsistent than this quote suggests, given that later (page 164) Prideaux writes, ‘He remained unable to believe in anything transcendental, and that included magic powers.’ I feel her summary at the end of the book probably defines his metaphysics and morality best (page 326-27):

[Munch was]: an implacable opponent of all –isms . . . [Central to the lives] of Munch’s tragic generation, had been the loss of meaning inflicted by the death of God. . . . Munch, too, had been one of the enfants du siècle who trod the narrow roof-ridge of disillusion, solipsism, spiritual disintegration and paralysing moral inertia, until the vision had come to him in Saint-Cloud. He, too, would have crashed down into the abyss of despair had it not been for his absolute need for some sort of religious faith. For Edvard Munch, just as for his father, it was impossible that God should die. The faith built upon the Saint-Cloud vision prevented the plunge into the abyss. Thereafter, his faith and his art together with his strong sense of moral responsibility towards his family were the icons clasped to his chest as, from time to time, he so nearly fell.

There is more to say but it can wait until next time.

The Sick Child (scanned from the Taschen edition)