Alice Neel & Life After 70

By Imme Dattenberg-Doyle

The opening work of Alice Neel’s retrospective at Barbican, Hot Off the Griddle, is of the artist’s first self-portrait: nude, in her 80s, perched on her famous armchair. “It was so damned hard”, she said, to be the subject of her soul-searching and to present herself truthfully and unapologetically. 

Self-portrait by Alice Neel, 1980, courtesy of the Artist and Barbican

In the exhibition Neel confirms what is often true: that far from ‘ageing-out’ of her career, Neel’s work only found critical acclaim in her 70s. She joins the ranks of some of our most celebrated artists in the late institutional interest in her work, including Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois and Carmen Herrera (notice how this most commonly happens to female artists?)

How does this relate to later life?

Neel’s defiant self-portrait reminds us that later life has its benefits: she has a self-acceptance that grows with age, and could be a factor in the ONS’ finding that highest average levels of personal well-being occur in our 70’s. This report of well-being is estimated based on our individual rating of our life satisfaction. This includes how much we feel the things we do in life are worthwhile, how happy we felt yesterday, how much anxiety we felt yesterday, and our mental wellbeing (ONS, Measures of National Well-being Dashboard: Quality of Life in the UK, Feb 2023). Centre for Ageing Better’s research also found that people over 70 tended to be the most positive about ageing (Centre for Ageing Better, Reframing Ageing, July 2021).

It is reassuring to know that many people in their 70’s feel so positively about their own well-being and ageing. More, however, can be done to help break down the stereotypes that proliferate ageism. The more we bring awareness to ageism and actively undo the harm it causes, the more we will feel a sense of personal dignity and shared humanity in ageing. This sense of dignity and humanity is present in Neel’s work and in her self-portrait.

“Harnessing a continually radical take on nudity, Neel presents an acute awareness of ageism and sexism in the images we consume and instead drawing the observer’s attention to the lived beauty of wrinkles, folds, flaps, and all. Over several decades of trial and error, Neel mastered a talent for capturing community, driven by her will to do people justice. Each painting radiates a sense of the humanity and dignity she found in each of her subjects.” – Maggie Scaife

How has your life improved with age? Comment below!

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