Artist Posthumously Breathes New Life Into Russian Lit Classic

Alice Neel’s long-forgotten illustrations for the Brothers Karamazov highlight the humor and the sadness of a master.

Alice Neel was often referred to as an “outsider artist” as a way of simplifying her often-complex work, which was both abstract and elegantly pained in its emotional clarity. When Neel passed away in 1984, she left behind a massive body of work, ranging from oil paintings to drawings to watercolors. The latter of these is the subject of a new book on the artist, Alice Neel: Drawings and Watercolors 1927-1978, and an accompanying exhibition at blue chip New York City gallery David Zwirner.

Neel’s delicate sketching had the unique ability to catch the precise moment between joy, laughter, and sadness as it flashed across a human face. This gravitas and perception, with a dash of sly cheekiness, made her the perfect choice to create a set of watery black and white illustrations in the 1930s of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. The final, fully illustrated book by Neel never saw the light of day, and as The Paris Review put it: “It’s not clear if the publishers rejected her work or if the whole project fell through, but in either case, damn.” The eight illustrations Neel created that we do know of are a testament to her intuitive ability, sensitive hand, and fierce humor. The unbridled joy of Grushenka and Mitya at the Drunken Party is juxtaposed with the somber, Old Testament sufferings of The Doctor’s Visit to Ilyusha. Together, they create something just as complex, as human, as one of Dostoyevsky’s very own works.

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