Beyond the Face
Alice Neel and Ugo Tesoriere were both painters of the 20th century who painted simultaneously, one in New York City and the other in Rome, Italy. Together, their lives spanned the entire century. Neel was born in 1900 and Tesoriere died in 2000.
I can’t imagine that Neel ever heard of, or saw Tesoriere’s work, and there is little evidence, if any, that Tesoriere was aware of Neel’s work. Yet, both artists’ most important works are portraits and self portraits that give the viewer great insight into their subjects. Both painters looked beyond the face to tell us more about those who sat for them.
After the death of artist Ugo Tesoriere in 2000, his entire life’s work was left to his dear friend Abbot Francis Kline and the Trappist Monastery of Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, South Carolina. When the Tesoriere Collection arrived in Charleston from Ugo’s studio in Rome, Father Francis was always anxious to tell the artist’s story and show his work.
I remember one afternoon during the Spoleto Festival, he and I were meeting Martha Teichner at the restaurant Slightly North of Broad here in Charleston. When Ms. Teichner saw images of Tesoriere’s paintings… especially his portraiture, she remarked that his work reminded her of the work of Alice Neel and Lucien Freud.
One could easily see where she was coming from, as all three artists’ portraits were more introspective than representational. In each case the subjects were clearly recognizable, but we, as viewers, also got a glimpse into the personality or soul of the sitters.
For Tesoriere, beauty relied on truth, and for art to be worthwhile, it had to reveal that truth. Therefore, his portraits were not to glorify or beautify the sitter, but rather to give us a look at what was behind the façade. I believe, this is also true of Neel and Freud’s work.
During the time I spent with him, Ugo never mentioned Neel or Freud, so I will never know if he saw their work, though I think it was unlikely. Freud was born in 1922, the year before Tesoriere, and Neel was born in 1900. Freud worked in England and Neel worked in New York City during the early and mid 20th century. Neel’s first major exhibition was at the Whitney Museum in 1974. Ugo was raised in Brooklyn, and worked as a medical doctor in Manhattan until he left for Italy in 1959. It seems unlikely that their paths would have crossed.
This past summer, on a trip to New York, I visited the Metropolitan Museum to see the Alice Neel Exhibition. It was the first time I had seen her amazing work in person. Like Tesoriere, she gave us a look into her sitters rather than just a look at them.
I was struck in particular by two of the portraits in the exhibition.
The first is called Elizabeth in a Red Hat. Elizabeth was Neel’s granddaughter, and we can’t help but admire the confidence of her stance. I found a photograph in the catalog from the 2000 Exhibition celebrating Neel’s 100th birthday. It shows her daughter Isabetta in 1939. The stance in this photo is a mirror image of Elizabeth’s in the painting. In both the photo and painting, we can see the personality and strength of the subject. This to me is evidence that both Neel’s daughter and granddaughter inherited her strength and character.
In an interview Neel stated that her work went against the grain. She said that for her, the best record of life was painting figures. Most artists painting at the same time were using abstraction. She also said that “in the process of painting someone, I reveal not only what shows, but what doesn’t show… they [the paintings] are not bold, just the truth.”
I believe Tesoriere accomplishes the same in his portraits; in particular, that of Francesca, or as he called her, La Scugnizza.” * His subject was a young girl, the daughter of the Tesoriere’s fruit and vegetable vendor. In this painting, Tesoriere shows a confident young girl, most evident in her stance, yet one who looks like she would take off at any minute if allowed. Tesoriere utilized what he called “functional distortion”. To him, it was the purposeful distortion of the actual physical attributes of a sitter in order to better describe the character. In this painting, he shows her impatience by distorting the relationship of her legs to her hips.
In both these paintings, we know more about the girl than what she is wearing or how she is standing. We get to know a little about her personality as well… at least as much as the artist is willing to show us.
This is also true of Neel’s portrait of her mother entitled Last Sickness. Here we see an elderly woman at the end of her life, frail, sitting in a chair starring at us, the viewers.
I was stuck by the similarity to Tesoriere’s portrait of Zia Lida, who was the aunt of his wife Valeria. Ugo and Valeria often visited their elderly aunt, and Ugo used these opportunities to do many studies and a number of paintings of this lady at the end of her life.
Both ladies sit wrapped in their robes. Neel paints the plaid of her mom’s robe in a rather abstract square design, similar to Tesoriere’s treatment of the blanket on Zia Lida’s lap. Both woman stare out at us as we regard them at a very private time of their lives. Again, both painters give us more information about the sitter than meets the eye.
Neel and Tesoriere, through their fascinating observation of their subjects, looked beyond the face to tell us more about those who sat for them. They were both genuinely fascinated by people, and exposed them from the inside out, to reveal to the viewer a deeper sense of who we all are.
If If you would like to know more about Alice Neel or Ugo Tesoriere I invite you to visit their websites: TesoriereCollection.org AliceNeel.com
* “Scugnizza” is a word in the Sicilian dialect that affectionately refers to an urchin or impish child. Having grown up with a Sicilian grandmother, my sisters and I were often called “scugnizza” when we were young.
Celia Cerasoli was the curator of the Tesoriere Collection during it’s time at Mepkin Abbey. Although her degree is in Fine Arts, she has done museum work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Print Club in Philadelphia, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. She also was Curator of Collection at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC. She met the Tesorieres in Rome with Abbot Francis Kline at the end of 1999 and remained a close friend to them both. She was responsible for the cataloging and transfer of the Collection to Mepkin Abbey from Tesoriere’s studio on the Via Guilia in Rome.