Two chocolate eyes look right through me, drowned by thick black eyebrows. One side of his face is thoughtful, the other concerned. I frown. Did I offend him? No, he must be thinking of something or somewhere else. Such a raw intensity hints at an untold narrative. For a moment I wish I could get one glimpse of his innermost thoughts, or just talk to him. Instead, I step away to examine the painting as a whole.
An orange boot at the bottom of the canvas instantly catches my eye. I slowly move my gaze along his cerulean jeans, his white shirt, and into his eyes again. How freeing it is to stare at one person so indefinitely! I can scrutinize all the specificities of his attitude, his expression. These smelt together to offer me a key to his psyche at the exact moment and thought it was captured in. When I see his open shirt and nonchalant stance, I am surprised to find darkness in his brooding expression instead of candid vibrancy.
It’s that frown… it draws attention to a certain bipolarity in his attitude. One arm rests on the chair, the other is tense; one eyebrow is furrowed, the other is still. He must suffer from some type of inner conflict. His nails are painfully short – a sign of care or anxiety? Both his jacket and his shirt are open, but his legs are crossed, his foot turned away from me, ready to walk out of the painting at any moment. A suggestion of movement in his figure. There is a certain raw brutality to the hair covering his head, his body, like a mask. A thick moustache right above his mouth prevents him from speaking. He is right before me and seems miles away.
The man has a cobalt silhouette, blue paint in the streaks of his hair and clothes. It leaves a ghostly impression; lingers long after you leave the gallery. The immediate and sketchy brushstrokes create a fleeting intensity. The limbs and the chair running out of the frame convey the feeling that the subject is only there temporarily, while also giving him room to move and escape. The essence of the subject is tinged with blue, a despondency exposed to us, no longer hidden behind hair or a jacket.
The chair he is sitting in is also cobalt. Deep, royal, it melts like an ice cube on my tongue, cooling the visceral heat of the painting. The chair’s stripes are prison bars, and the subject is trapped. Locked in the frame, in the idea of himself he tries to portray to the world. A constant battle against his melancholy nature, a societal obligation to display confidence and ease. Yet he blends into the chair, and once more he becomes evanescent. I hold my breath. He is still there.
I look to his hands, his face, and it is now clear they are the most polished part of the painting. It is as if the painter wanted to add more nuance to the focal points of human communication, adding layer upon layer of paint… Or perhaps so many beiges, browns and greens show an inner turmoil, all his emotions coming up to his skin like a blush. Uncertainty? Anger? Fear? None of these? We can only guess. All we know is that there is a life beyond the painting.
But what about the backdrop, so subtle I almost forgot to look at it? Yellow on the bottom half of the painting, and grey on top. The subject is obviously the principal focus of the piece, and a blue halo of sadness and life envelops him. It is as if the yellow opposes the grey in a simplified representation of the man’s interiority; the stark contrast of his nonchalance and brooding sadness. I look at the white plaque besides the painting: The Arab, Alice Neel, 1976.
Alice Neel stubbornly pursued a career as a figurative realist painter in the age of modernism. While she painted still-lives, landscapes, and genre scenes, her favorite subject-matter was people. Not receiving any acclaim until she was well into her seventies, she did not paint for any monetary gain; her art was democratic in nature. It was first and foremost a personal endeavor, and Neel described herself as a ‘collector of souls,’ using art as a way to better connect with the people around her. Her home itself was a gallery of unbought portraits. She painted in three principle phases: her earliest paintings were of the Left-wing artists and political activists in Greenwich Village, then the residents of the Spanish Harlem, and finally the New York artworld, marked by the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s.
Neel painted people because she found them interesting. Her main focus was bringing out their psychology in her portraits, much like Van Gogh in his painting of Dr. Gachet. A portrait by Alice Neel is a snapshot of her subject’s thoughts and interiority at a moment in time. Be it a family member, a celebrity, or a complete stranger in the New York Harlem, each portrait embodies a profound sense of intimacy, showing the subject through Neel’s eyes. She called herself a ‘psychiatrist,’ and looking at The Arab long enough, that’s exactly how I feel. Given the time to examine all the aspects of the painting, you begin to interpret the subject’s mannerisms in a way that you could not in real life, where staring at someone too long is a great offense. However, Neel’s emphasis on psychology is just a piece of a larger purpose, because according to her, ‘every person is a new universe unique with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by’ – her portraits serve as a reflection of a moment in time, be it historical, social, or political.
An awareness of being observed is clear in the expression and pose of The Arab. Sittings with Alice Neel often lasted over three hours, and boredom could not have been uncommon, visible here in The Arab’s distracted expression and careless arm swinging off the chair. His foot is turned away from us, peeking out of the frame, impatience to leave. Neel was not concerned with physical setting, but with the manner in which the figure occupied pictorial space. Digging deeper then, beyond weariness, and studying the subject’s body language, we can notice a contrast here between confidence and insecurity.
My first encounter with Alice Neel’s The Arab was laced with curiosity. How could a man be at once so open and so closed? By letting her subjects choose their own pose, Neel gave them room to live in her paintings. Thus, his psyche also shines through his bipolar stance: one arm relaxed, one brow furrowed, shirt open, legs closed. In a public context, these details would have gone unnoticed, but because of the nature of the painted portrait, I sat for over thirty minutes gradually getting past the wall of apparent confidence The Arab was projecting.
I then began to notice the cobalt blue lining his silhouette, in his hair and clothes, like a ghost of his inner melancholy. It was a conscious decision on the part of Alice Neel to show how this projected confidence was tinged with inner sadness. Judging by his clothing choices (fashionable boot-cut jeans and bomber jacket), The Arab was very much aware of his appearance. In a “boys don’t cry, man up!” world of hegemonic masculinity, where men were expected to interiorize their emotions, it is only natural to find these same behaviors in The Arab, a reflection of his time.
The most emphasized parts of the painting are his hands and feet, holding a proportional importance, where colors are layered in a mix of blue, green and beige. According to Neel, ‘the head contains most of the senses. You feel all over, but you hear, see, smell and taste with the head. You also think with the head. It’s the center of the universe, really….’ The head and hands are the nucleus of feeling and of human communication. We could also think of the tradition of caricature that recognized that the best way to show an emotion was by exaggerating facial expressions. In this sense, Alice Neel’s portraits are a sort of metaphor for the sitter’s character. The Arab’s is one of hidden vulnerability completely exposed to the viewer, which in turn creates an undeniable intimacy.
The lines in Neel’s painting are fleeting, sketch-like, a rushed psychological snapshot of the subject – who is in himself the echo of an era. She said herself at Moore College of Art in 1971, ‘people’s images reflect the era in a way that nothing else could.’ The 19th century German philosophical concept of Zeitgeist is relevant here, as it refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch, the ‘spirit of the age,’ if you will. This is exactly what each of Alice Neel’s portraits are, a little piece of an era, because to her, identity was inseparable from the public realms of occupation and class. What does The Arab tell us about America in the 1970s? Neel chose to paint minorities because to her, American culture could no longer be defined as white middle class, but could there be political implications here as well?
In our analysis of Alice Neel’s The Arab, it is key to recall the representation of Arabs in the second half of the twentieth century. Just three years prior to the execution of this painting, the heavily mediatized Yom Kippur War, or 1973 Arab-Israeli war, was fought for almost a month. During this time, and all throughout the twentieth century, Arabs were vilified and portrayed extremely negatively as the ‘enemy,’ in movies like A Son of the Sahara (1924), or even Aladdin (1992), that enforce cultural stereotypes of Arabs from black and white Hollywood movies; belly dancers, sabers, camels and all. However, the most relevant example of this must be John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, released just a year after The Arab was painted. In this motion picture narrating the determent of a terrorist attack by the group Black Sunday, Arabs are dehumanized and assimilated to Grinch who ‘stole Christmas’ as they try to wreak havoc on the Super Bowl, an American tradition.
It is in this socio-political context that Alice Neel created The Arab, fully aware of the connotations of titling the portrait this way. This marks an interesting paradox: while at first glance he is just another one of Neel’s sitters, the title of the painting defines him by his race; Neel wants us to be aware that he is Arab. The first effect this has is that it places The Arab on the same level as her other sitters – though Arabs are vilified in American media and seen as enemies, to Neel they are people, just like any other minority in America. He is victim to the same emotions, the same insecurities as the viewer, who finds himself face to face with a peer; we are on the same level. Because he is ultimately a painting on a canvas, I can stare at him as long as I want without offending anyone, and slowly the prejudices of society fade when I begin to look at body language, and realize he is uncomfortable, just as anyone would be if they were scrutinized for hours at a time.
However, we cannot force a political narrative on Alice Neel’s paintings. While she spoke openly about including African American and Hispanic minorities in her portrait gallery, she has never made any reference to Arabs. Perhaps it was just a missing piece to her pictorial anthology of Zeitgeist portraits, a minority she had no yet painted. Or it was simply a friend or acquaintance she found interesting who insisted she title the painting thus. Sadly, there are no records available on this often-overlooked painting that immediately caught my eye in the Cantor art collection of Stanford.
When looking into The Arab’s eyes, echoes of a conflicted soul, it is clear that intimacy is key in the effect of the painting. It serves two purposes, and the first is to create a relationship between the sitter and the viewer, where The Arab’s psyche gradually reveals itself to us. This is what makes the painting a metaphor of the subject’s character; without this connection with The Arab I would not have been compelled to look at him for as long as I did, or want to understand him thus. The second purpose is political – through this connection, we become open to the potential message Alice Neel wishes to convey. The Arab is an equal, and suddenly we find ourselves questioning Arab stereotypes in the media.
However, while intimacy is absolutely key in The Arab, it is perhaps not used with the same objectives or even used at all in Art. Often, it will serve themes such as love or identity, and even just in the genre of portraiture, intimacy could ruin the effect of majesty and command commissioned by a king. Thus, it is important to remain aware of intimacy in Art and what effect it has on us as individuals experiencing it. While it is not always necessary, it is interesting to consider its purpose in a certain context.
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