The bodies of old women are rarely celebrated in art, and representations of them are few. The faces of older women who’ve achieved status and standing have long had their place in portraiture, which can indeed be a celebration. But the aged and unclothed female body – that’s rare indeed. If you see it at all, it’s likely to be as documentary or grotesque (think Diane Arbus, think Jenny Saville). A celebrated exception is Alice Neel’s nude Self-Portrait (1980), completed when she was 80. I first saw it in reproduction in the 1990s – that decade of books on women and art and the body – and even in that context there were few images as confronting. I understood its significance, I thought, but I didn’t like it. Not at all. I’m not sure if it was the discomfort of those pendulous breasts above the flop of belly onto leg. Or the decorative blue and white stripes of the chair in which she sits. Or her ruddy cheeks and old-lady glasses. More likely it was the beady eyes that look straight into yours and demand your attention. Her self-exposure seemed at once narcissistic and masochistic. Why let anyone see you like that? My turning 50 that decade – up against that moment of oestrogen withdrawal when the question of age takes on a rather nasty immediacy – probably had something to do with my response.
It wasn’t until July 2010 that I saw the self-portrait in the flesh, so to speak, in the retrospective of Neel’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Alice Neel: Painted Truths was the first major showing of her work anywhere in Europe, and the Guardian acclaimed “this exhilarating show with its exceptional range of emotional nuances, of life lessons and warnings” as “the revelation of the year”. It was indeed exhilarating, and this time I liked Self-Portrait a lot. The stomach sagged no less, the breasts were as old and useless. The ankles were still swollen. But the decorative stripes receded, and I began to understand the language of portraiture that she’d developed over 50 years: a sophisticated and idiosyncratic intervention into a genre radically out of favour in the mid twentieth-century New York (where she lived and worked) dominated by the great abstractionists.
Neel began the self-portrait in 1975, and returned to it in 1980 when she was invited to contribute to an exhibition of self-portraits. “Frightful, isn’t it?” she told a friend. “I love it. At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.” It was a provocative move, but the fact of her nakedness shouldn’t be taken as opportunistic. I saw at the Whitechapel that, in the context of her portrait work going back 50 years, I had been wrong about the self-exposure and the narcissism – and also about the masochism. Many of her portraits – of men as well as women – are of people naked. There’s an extraordinary one of Andy Warhol (dated 1970), in which he, the vainest of men, sits with eyes closed and chest bared, revealing the blanket-stitch scars from Valerie Solanas’ assassination attempt in June 1968. Though only 40, he looks much older due to Neel’s method of exaggeration and distortion. The portrait – as always with her – homes in on the psychological truth of a proud man shamed by scars and the flesh-coloured truss he wore to hold his stomach in.
Almost all of her pregnant women – of which there are several – are nude. It was in the body that she found the ‘truths’ she wanted to paint: not only those expressed by the outward drama of bodily events such as pregnancy or gunshot or old age but, equally, the momentous inner experiences that accompany them. An old body, one need hardly say, is a presiding reality of life for an old artist, a daily reminder of the approach of the end. “The obverse of a pin-up girl” reads the catalogue note for Self-Portrait and, while it is clearly that, the comment says more about our expectations of art than about Neel’s as artist. She wasn’t interested in the eroticised or allegorical figure of the female nude. Even at the start, in the 1920s, when she was quite a stunner to judge by the photos, she wasn’t painting pin-up girls. Her pregnant friends and neighbours – she couldn’t afford models – have a certain magnificent beauty, as pregnant women can do, but her interest was as much in the tension between fragility and strength, the deep anxieties that may accompany fecundity and ripeness. Not self-display. (Neel herself had five pregnancies: her first child died, once she miscarried, another child was lost to the father’s family, leaving two sons whom she raised largely as a single mother. She knew a lot about anxiety and fear.) No, she wasn’t painting women as men might see them, or as they might want to be seen. A socialist and a realist (though not a social-realist, she was too expressionist for that), she was interested in what life did to people “torn”, as she put it, “by all the things that they are torn by today in the rat race in New York”.
So with Self-Portrait. This is the artist seeing herself. Wearing those awful glasses, she meets her own reflection, and us, with an unflinching gaze. Her mouth is tensed in concentration as she holds the brush in one hand and a cloth in the other. Left-handed, she reversed the brush to the right hand, “to emphasise the difference between the painted mirror image and the object itself”, Jeremy Lewison writes in the (excellent) catalogue. “This is a portrait of the self as ‘other’.” Maybe. Or is the “other” a distancing comment by a male curator in his fifties confronted with the appearance of his artist’s aged and all too female body? It seems to me that, rather than distancing herself from this “frightful” old body, she is very much within it, looking out with an eye that says the stomach may sag and the breasts bear little resemblance to the breasts we are accustomed to seeing in art, but the mind remains sharp with all that she has seen, all that she knows. Though few others lingered in front of it as they did in front of Andy Warhol, I found Self-Portrait curiously encouraging. It’s not old age in itself that is celebrated, and certainly not illness; you only have to look at the portrait of her mother in Last Sickness (1953) to see that. (Simone de Beauvoir says that’s where the trauma of ageing begins for a woman: when she tends the old and sick body of her mother and, despite herself, finds it repugnant.) The celebration is of achievement despite it all – the pregnancies, the scars and wounds, age and its regrets.
“A woman has no place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated,” Louise Bourgeois said in 1971, in the course of an interview series that also included Alice Neel. For that generation – Bourgeois was born in 1911 – there was a good deal of truth to this, though the fact that she said it for a project exclusively on women in art is in itself an indication of how radically their situation was to be changed by the shifts in cultural perceptions that were ushered in with the women’s movement.
Neel, the daughter of a payroll clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad, didn’t get to art school until after World War I. She enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, using savings from her wartime work as a stenographer for the Army Air Corps. Her first major solo show – of 16 works – was in 1938. Between then and 1964, when the Graham Gallery began representing her in New York, she’d had a few small solo shows. Then, suddenly, her portrait of Kate Millett was on the cover of ‘The Politics of Sex’ issue of Time magazine in 1970. In 1972 the art historian Linda Nochlin wrote about her work, and in 1974 she had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. For Neel, this late attention was a fairly straightforward triumph. Material success counted for a lot after years of poverty, but what really mattered to her was being recognised, not as a late-come minor celebrity but for the significance of the work she’d done. A “revolution”, Nochlin said, was occurring in the way the “erotics of the body” were being represented, and Neel was happy to be seen as a part of it. Her span of work came into public focus with this attention, but her portraiture, the visual language she’d developed, remained much as it had been. She already had cancer when she finished Self-Portrait, and she died four years later in 1984.
For Louise Bourgeois, ‘discovery’ was much more complex – but then nothing was straightforward for her. Born in France to a family of tapestry restorers, she studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, then art at the École des Beaux Arts. More significantly, she worked as a student in the ateliers of artists, including Fernand Léger, her “best teacher”, who told her she was not a painter but a sculptor. The first apartment she rented was in the building where André Breton had his gallery, Gradiva, and showed the surrealists. She learned a good bit there too, though she loathed Breton – and most of the other father figures she repudiated, including Marcel Duchamp (from whom she later accepted assistance when they were both living in the United States, which only served to increase her ambivalence). So, right from the start, she did have a foothold and it was extended when, in 1938, the American art historian Robert Goldwater walked into the gallery she’d opened in a partitioned corner of her parents’ tapestry workshop. She married him in September that year and moved with him to New York, where she found “a flourishing artistic milieu” and was “anxious to establish a reputation as an artist”.
Even with a husband who became a prominent professor, critic and museum director, it was not easy. For years she was treated with a kind of insouciant sub-regard. Later, after she was famous, she’d say it had been an “experience of great luck” not to have been “picked up by the art market”, left instead to work by herself. But back in 1959, when she felt she’d been alone too long, she’d complained of the men who flattered her to get something from her husband: “I exist only as Robert’s wife.” She was frank about her jealousy of his success and her resentment of the way she wasn’t “courted” as her “masculine contemporaries” were. Yet when she was taken up – the market came to favour “older women and younger men”, she said in 1988 – she became cranky, complaining about feminists assuming her as a “role model” and a “mother”. She’d raised three sons, and that was enough mothering. “I am a woman, so I don’t need to be a feminist,” she said tartly in 1995.
What she wanted, she said repeatedly, was the freedom to “do what I want my way, not their way, to change, to alter, to remake, to transform, to improve, to rebuild”. She wanted it from men when she was young, and she wanted it from women later. (She had to change the world around her, she said, as she couldn’t change herself.) The irony was that during those years of insufficient recognition, she had, by her own admission, been hesitant – “masochistic” was her word – not entirely believing she had “the right to be an artist”. Her work moved this way and that, and despite Léger’s advice, much that she exhibited was painting or work on paper. “I felt I had to save my husband’s money rather than do sculpture that cost money.”
The major exception to this was her series of Personnages, the 80 or so standing wooden sculptures of the 1940s. She made them, often from scavenged wood, on the roof of the apartment building Stuyvesant Folly, at 142 East 18th Street, where she, Robert and their three small sons lived. Though some were exhibited at the end of the decade, they were not seen until much later as a “key to the crucial themes and concerns of her entire body of work”. This comment by Josef Helfenstein was included in the catalogue to Tate Modern’s 2007 exhibition Louise Bourgeois, and it was there that I saw the Personnages – tall, modernist, architectural figures that are emphatically bodies and beings. (On the roof she’d moved them around in groups so that they could converse.) They made me think immediately of the house poles and totems and vertical slit drums I’d seen in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. It’s not such a long bow to draw, for Goldwater was an expert on Oceanic (and African) art, and had come to prominence with his book Primitivism in Modern Art (1938).
That work of the 1940s, the foundation of all that was to come, went largely unrecognised – even to some extent by Bourgeois herself – until the 1960s. It was then that she mustered the confidence to move into the sexually ambiguous and often explicit work that began with Fillette (1968) – the shockingly large penis with a vulva tucked between the testicles, which she held under her arm when photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1982. The money that came with success and commissions allowed her to work in bronze and marble and make the monumental pieces – the great spiders and the ‘cells’ – of the second half of her working life. But that great surge of creativity came at the cost of the obscurity of those years spent “only as Robert’s wife” when she moved her Personnages around on the rooftop. Goldwater, who died in 1973, was not to see how great an artist she became.
Louise Bourgeois died on 31 May 2010, while Alice Neel’s Painted Truths was at the Whitechapel Gallery. The serendipitous connection sent me back to Bourgeois’s late work, which until then I hadn’t considered in its own right. She was 98 when she died, and had worked until remarkably close to the end. In 2000 Maman, the 10 metre tall steel spider with her sack of marble eggs, and the three steel towers, I Do, I Undo, I Redo, formed Tate Modern’s inaugural installation series in the Turbine Hall. Not bad for a woman of 89. But even she had to make some concession to age and, during her last decade, she turned increasingly from the monumental and huge, from the heavy materials of bronze and marble, to the soft and pliable. There were aluminium heads covered with tapestry or towelling, then appliquéd, fabric figures, some of them deliberately ratty, some sexually ambiguous. Female figures laced up, cut up, isolated, surviving, comical in their insistence on life even when dismembered. Among these figures are hints of the active and the joyous, the stamina of the body even as it sinks towards the ground. Her characteristic ambivalence is seldom absent.
Among these soft figures is Fragile Goddess (2002), a carefully sewn pink torso resting securely on the ground. Above its large round stomach are breasts that might be interpreted as testes, and a blunt shaft-like neck that never resolves into a head, or, unambiguously, into a penis. There’s something polished and beautiful about this small figure for all that it’s made of pink fabric. It recalls two earlier figures – Harmless Woman, and one also called Fragile Goddess – from 1969 and 1970 respectively, those heady years of not being eliminated. The three works are much the same size (ranging between 26 and 31.8 centimetres in height), but the earlier two, in bronze with gold patina, are solid and heavy. They sit firm and assured, fertile and potent, with a clear echo of the Palaeolithic limestone Venus of Willendorf (c.25,000 BC). This Venus, a stumpy female torso with large stomach and breasts, a figure of fecundity, is often referred to in writing on women’s art. It appears in the Tate Modern catalogue alongside the two bronze figures. And as a fertility figure, it gets a mention in the catalogue of Alice Neel’s Painted Truths.
Looking at the Venus in the context of Louise Bourgeois’s late work, it occurs to me that this great artist of the ambiguous might be saying something about the fertility of age. Not the fertility of procreation, of course, but another form of creative making. Some time ago, when I was in my late forties, I remember a friend, who was then an anthropologist and is now a psychotherapist, telling me that far from menopause being the end of a woman’s useful or valued life, as our youth culture would have us believe, the potential of women’s post-fertile life has been essential to the evolution and development of human society. It’s not just that a good stretch is needed for a woman to raise the last of her children. Look at pre-industrial societies and you’re likely to find older women as a stabilising force; they support younger women as they come into the role of mothers and they free them up to continue productive work for the community; they are repositories for group knowledge, lore and history.
I don’t know if Louise Bourgeois had any of this in mind, or anything like it, when she made her pink fabric Fragile Goddess, though it’s not impossible given her husband’s expertise in ‘primitive’ art. She’d made the two burnished goddesses while he was still alive. It seems to me that, while the bodies of old women may not rate highly in the economies of merit that govern art, the ancient limestone Venus and her three descendants, along with Neel’s Self-Portrait, are telling us something about age that, as a culture, we would do well to recall.
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.
The bodies of old women are rarely celebrated in art, and representations of them are few. The faces of older women who’ve achieved status and standing have long had their place in portraiture, which can indeed be a celebration. But the aged and unclothed female body – that’s rare indeed. If you see it at all, it’s likely to be as documentary or grotesque (think Diane Arbus, think Jenny Saville). A celebrated exception is Alice Neel’s nude Self-Portrait (1980), completed when she was 80. I first saw it in reproduction in the 1990s – that decade of books on women and art and the body – and even in that context there were few images as confronting. I understood its significance, I thought, but I didn’t like it. Not at all. I’m not sure if it was the discomfort of those pendulous breasts above the flop of belly onto leg. Or the decorative blue and white stripes of the chair in...