‘It has always surprised me how underappreciated the work of Alice Rahon (1916-1987) is, both critically and commercially. Rahon may fly under the radar because she is not an artist who fits easily into any one category. She defies our expectations for a Surrealist, the group with which she is most closely associated, and instead simply remains resolutely Rahon.
‘She also, of course, suffers from being a female artist and, worse still, from being a female artist married to a better-known male artist — Wolfgang Paalen. Unlike her friend Frida Kahlo, Rahon has never been able to overcome such a predicament and steal the limelight from her husband.
‘This work [above], which hangs in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, is Rahon’s homage to her better-known friend. Created shortly after Kahlo’s death, La Balada para Frida Kahlo is classic Rahon — a well-worked canvas, scraped down in places and built up with sand in others, hovers between the earthly and spiritual realms. A menagerie of semi-recognisable animals parades through an amusement park in the sky.
‘Rahon’s biography is strikingly similar to Kahlo’s — after surviving an accident at an early age, she was left disabled and suffered from chronic physical and emotional pain, which was exacerbated later in life by her inability to have a child. Yet none of this is evoked in Rahon’s painting. To the contrary, Rahon thwarts the all too common practice of reading female artists’work biographically and instead keeps us focused on the art itself.’
‘Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933) is a female artist whose legacy is far-reaching and fundamental to the female artists of the 20th century and beyond, but whose name has been largely forgotten. She was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1922 — the first woman to be accepted since its foundation in 1768 — and her work was admired and owned by fellow artists, including Auguste Rodin, John Singer Sargent and George Clausen.
‘At the time, women were not permitted to study from the nude in British art schools, and so Swynnerton travelled to Paris to attend the progressive Académie Julian. There she learnt to draw nudes, breaking the boundaries of what had previously been considered “suitable” subjects for women artists.
‘Her Mater Triumphalis, painted in 1892 and now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, depicts a fleshy, real-life figure, eyes closed in a state of ecstasy, far from the traditional idealised Victorian representation of the female nude. Indeed, Mater Triumphalis was deemed so shocking when it was exhibited in 1892 that critics were disturbed by the “quivering reality” of the flesh, describing it as “vulgar”.
‘In 2018 Swynnerton was the subject of a major retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery, and is fully deserving of this new understanding of and interest in her work.’
‘The experience of visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park, set in rolling hills just off the M1 in northern England, is a magical one at any time of year. Viewing sculpture in landscape takes on a life-affirming quality, and for me, no other work there can provide such a vital viewing experience as the iconic nine sculptures in bronze that form The Family of Man, 1970, by Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975).
‘The sculptures of ancestors and modern-day family figures — captured in this photograph in the snow on a winter’s day — exude a prehistoric grandeur and beauty. The nine standing forms represent the alignment of the ancient with the modern, the abstract with the figurative, and the monumental with the everyday.
‘It’s such a powerful statement, and one that could only have been created after a long and inspired life of artistic endeavour. It’s no wonder that Hepworth’s work is now so admired on a global scale, and that she is our most successful female British sculptor and artist.’
‘One of my favourite works is by Rita Kernn-Larsen (1904-1998), a largely forgotten Danish Surrealist artist who exhibited with Peggy Guggenheim in the 1930s. I discovered her work several years ago when I was sent an intriguing painting, entitled La promenade dangereuse, dating to 1936, by one of her descendants.
‘Few examples of her work survive in museums, although Self-Portrait (Know Thyself), from 1937, can be found in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
‘As a Surrealist, Kernn-Larsen explored her personal experience in her work, blending the real with the subliminal, memory with dream. In this self-portrait, we see the artist’s floating facial features within an alternate, vermilion landscape. She also makes reference to the femme-fleur motif here — the image of woman as flower or plant — by depicting leaves of a tree branch as lips.
‘I can’t imagine what Kernn-Larsen’s life was like as a woman in that world at that time. Yet there’s an emotive and personal content within this picture that really resonates with me, and a resilience and curiosity that I can relate to.’
‘For me, this portrait of Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1900-1984) in the Whitney Museum of American Art is the ultimate depiction of “truth”. Painted by Neel two years after Warhol’s attempted assassination by artist Valerie Solanas, it portrays the artist like no one had ever seen before. He’s gaunt, bruised, and insecure — words not normally associated with the legendary figure of Pop art, who built his career on depicting society’s ideals of beauty.
‘It’s a work that encapsulates the appeal of Alice Neel: she was honest and confrontational when it came to painting her often vulnerable sitters, no matter what their status or wealth.
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‘A loyal, expressive portraitist working in mid-century New York at a time when the Abstract Expressionists reigned, Neel stood her ground as a feminist, painting the likes of American feminist writer Kate Millett for the cover of Time magazine, and the formidable art historian Linda Nochlin with her wide-eyed daughter Daisy.
‘When Neel’s portraits are imbued with so much emotion, it’s hard not to connect with her daring and scrutinised sitters. I think her portraits are among the best paintings ever made.’
This feature was originally published in 2019.