10/15/2009

Alice Neel (1900-1984), T.B. Harlem, 1940.

Do you love paintings? Here is an interesting one, focusing on human dignity."While most of the art world turned to abstraction towards the middle of the twentieth century, Alice Neel (1900-1984) courageously chose to remain a figure painter. Occasionally she painted the rich and famous–artists, playwrights, scientists, even a papal nuncio, but mostly her subjects were the unnoticed, the overlooked, the difficult. They were her neighbors in Spanish Harlem: stay-at-home mothers, pregnant mothers, door-to-door salesmen, restaurant workers, tradesmen. Nor did she shy away from those most would rather not confront–a dying, querulous old woman, a middle-aged man in the late stages of cancer, a young man ravaged by tuberculosis. But whether her subjects are young, old, famous, unknown, nude or clothed, Neel’s gift was to reveal their common denominator: an ineffable, undefinable, invisible human quality we call dignity.

T.B. Harlem, completed in 1940, is one of the most well-known of Neel’s paintings. Gaunt and resigned, the subject could have been a young man dying on a battlefield of World War II pinned with a medal of honor. Instead he is a young man in a Harlem hospital fighting an all too prevalent disease to the death. His badge of honor covers the wound of thoracoplasty, or surgically induced lung collapse, then a radical treatment of last resort for tuberculosis. Neel also accurately portrays the side-effects of both the treatment and the disease: owing to the loss of several ribs on the affected side, compensatory thoracic and cervical curvatures of the spine pull it into the opposite directions of an S-curve. Atrophied muscles of the arms and hands and the lax abdominal muscles suggest that the battle has been a long one; the atrophy is the result of disuse, the protuberant abdomen indicative of a long-standing lack of proper nutrition. But Neel’s painting is not a medical treatise on tuberculosis. It is rather an eloquent essay on the inherent dignity of human beings that exists quite independently of exterior circumstances."

Source: M. Therese Southgate, MD

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