The Critical Review

Perspective: An age old portrayal

During the course of my ‘Major Project’ which is “A life portrait of my Mother”, I have become increasingly aware of how artists portray representations of aging in their work, and how their work alters with the ravages of advancing years.

Representations of aging tend to differ greatly due to many factors, such as the life-stage of the artist and that of the subject. Occupation, location, environment, era, social trends, perceived views, and in many cases the relationship of the artist to the sitter play a key role in determining how age is expressed. This I find is most notable, in how Albrecht Durer portrayed his mother, Barbara Durer nee Holpin when she was 39 (1490) and then later just before her death at the age of 63 (1514). In the later he ‘forensically detailed’ the effects of aging, human flesh and illness, which is in stark contrast to his ‘less inclined record’ of age in his own self-portraits.
In 1870 James Mc Neill Whistler created controversy in his ‘demonstration piece of the new ‘modern art’ with his radical colour study of his then 67 year old mother, which was according to him, intended as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black’. In it he depicts her ‘weathered, bony profile and the harsh moral character of Puritan America’. Whistler took the ‘raw stuff ‘ of his mother and made his representation of her as a part of his ‘decorative ensemble’  Society at the time perceived it as “un-sentimental and un-flattering” [Jonathan Jones] [The Gaurdian] (6/7/2002) One critic suggested that he had depicted his mother ‘after her death’, another stated that the work “was that of an eccentric”, In the’ London Times’ (1872) a critic stated “san artist who could deal with large masse so  grandly might have shown a little less severity, and thrown in a few details of interest without offence”. In 1884, a Parisian critic wrote, “it’s disturbing, mysterious; of a different colour from those we are accustomed to seeing” and “art matters more than family”.
Contemporary artist Colin Davidson (b.1968), in his “Between the words “portraits of writers, musicians, actors and poets, appears oblivious to the age of his subjects and treats them all, young and old as if they were landscapes in his quest to ‘represent the inner self’, yet there is no doubt for the viewer as to the age group of each sitter.

Representations of aging vary greatly in different societies, from artist to artist, perceived expectations and the period of history in which they are painted.
“We are born, we live, and we die.” Ref ‘Images of aging.’ [Cultural representations of later life] [Mike Featherstone and Andrew Wernick]. “In later life there is the threat of loss of status through bodily decline, we usually, often confusingly refer to as aging.”  Stereotypical grim depictions of the aging body can and does influence our perception of the elderly.  In their book [Images of aging], MF and AW also state that “ making of an image is an interpretative act in which the subject’s body is clothed and adorned in  particular ways and framed in a setting of other material objects, all of which carry a particular symbolic weight, emotional tone and resonance. The image is, then the result of an act of perception and construction which frames a world.” Often there is the assumption that  the good artist or photographer is the one who ‘artfully arranges and waits for what they  take to be a particular apt expression of ourselves, manifest in our face, appearance and posture which lets the self somehow shine through’. In the current social media phenomenon the ‘selfie’ image never portrays the deeper side of the individual, always what they themselves want the world to see or think. In my opinion this assumption doesn’t apply to the ‘beneath the skin’ work of Lucian Freud, the “volcanic” and expressive work of John Bellany or the soul searching work of Colin Davidson.

Ref: [‘Art, aging and abandonment in Japan] [Jason Danely] Jason Danely states that “representations of aging in Japanese are not only influenced by how older adults construct their identity in late life, but the ethical implications of this identification.”  The ‘Crone of Obasuteyama’, is a negative stereotypical representation of old age often used in Japan.
[Egyptian art representations of age] In the art of Ancient Egypt, the features of aging are generally omitted from the images of the elite women, which is in contrast to how male aging is represented. Male aging was seen as a positive image for men and is seen far more frequently and in greater detail.
Leonardo da Vinci’s  and Michelangelo’s depiction of the aged, in their ‘grotesque’ caricature drawings, appeared at times very unkind, where  they portrayed  elderly faces ‘as monstrous wrecks’. If viewed in context, they were themed on ‘the plague’, ‘the dance of death’, ‘the masked ball’ and ‘the apocalypse’. According to Lorenzo Lorusso, [Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe through the ages], Leonardo was fascinated by people with ‘bizarre heads’ which he exaggerated in great detail.
Representations of the elderly by Van Eyck, Moroni, and Valazquez, all depict old age with sensitive dignity.
.Ref; [Jonathan Jones on art blog] [www.theguardian.com 2012/03/29] In his blog Jonathan Jones talks about Rembrandt, and his pursuit of capturing age, he writes “Rembrandt and the art of growing old gracefully…..while other artists were coldly curious or worse cruel in their depiction of old age; Rembrandt relished the effects of time. He recognised the dignity and character of aged faces and embraced the marks of time as beautiful, mysterious and rich. He painted old age with nobility and power….see ‘The old Rabbi at Woburn Abbey’. He was interested in the inner self, the mystery behind someone’s eyes, and the distractions of youthful glamour just get in the way of that pursuit. An elderly face framed by a white ruff collar over black clothes allowed him to see deeper.”
Rembrandt made the study of aging a life-long project and used his mother as a model.  His many self-portraits are a fascinating detailed record of himself growing old.

Having viewed a cross section of the varied representations of aging, throughout the history of art and focusing on the contemporary, leads me to reflect on the work of artists as they age, and does it change as their age increases?

Artists don’t generally consider the need for retirement, because they are already engaging in what they always wanted to do. I have noticed this in the life-drawing group I regularly attend, which has artists ranging from ages 18 to more than 90 years old.  The work of the visual artist is seemingly never complete as long as they can hold a pencil or a brush. It never ceases to amaze me how the elderly artists in the group are always interested in discovering new techniques, new works of art and are forever developing their drawing skills. They never say goodbye to the group, they just quietly disappear. Time has no mercy on most life pursuits, especially for athletes, dancers, and manual workers, but for artists if they work with time, adapt to age and acknowledge change, then their work often ripens. Experience brings you assets.
Artists who were highly productive and turned out some of their best work late into old age include, Giovanni Bellini (died at 86), who worked on several commissions  right to the end, Michelangelo (d. 89), in his 70’s he had difficulty sleeping and would  wake up during the night and work on his ‘Duomo Pieta’. Having become angry and frustrated with it, he smashed it to pieces. His last work was ‘Rodanini Pieta’, which some critics claim it shows signs of mental weakness and the sad loss of power, while others claim it may have been his development into abstraction. Titian (d. between 86-103?). In his later years his style and techniques became more abstract, using freer brushwork and wild strokes, which is evident in his last work ‘The Death of Actaeon. . Renoir’s ‘campy nudes’ which he painted later in his career, as an artist, inspired and intrigued both Picasso and Matisse. His work is said to have helped them ‘rethink the human body’.
Monet (d.86) painted his water-lilies when he was almost blind after cataract surgery. Matisse (d.86) invented his paper cut-outs in his last years when he was confined to his bed and wheelchair. Picasso (d. 91), [ref: http://www.pablopicasso.org/index.jsp], his productivity multiplied with age; “he simplified his forms and used repetition as a creative device.  “He became almost compulsively creative, trying to make the most of life before it was too late”. He revisited some of his earlier work to use as subject matter and stated “the present vanishes to make room for the past”.  In his late work his style appears much more expressive and colourful.  According to some art critics, Piacasso, in his late period, discovered neo-expressionism ahead of his time.   Georgia O keeffe (d.98) according to [Lisa Messinger],  her last two decades were hindered due to ill health and blindness, but in the 1950’s when she was approaching 80, she started travelling in airplanes. This experience inspired her two late works, ‘It was blue and green’ and ‘Sky above clouds’. Her canvas size increased “reflecting her newly expanded world”.
In his book, ‘Old Masters: Great artists in old age’, Thomas Dormandy wrote “all case histories point in one direction….the extraordinary flowering of artists genius in old age. He disagrees with the notion of “creativity as an antidote to physical or mental decline.”
In ‘Myths of Aging’ [By Simon Tan, Psy.D., A.B.P.P on January 20, 2011 in Wise Up]  he is  introducing the concept of normal aging, and brings to our attention that a lot of contemporary images of aging have “generally reinforced negative stereotypes of the elderly”.  Certain conditions do occur but their prevalence and severity have been exaggerated by myths such as, ‘all old people are the same’, but the reality is there is actually more variety among older people than among any other age group. Another myth is that ‘it is easier to learn new things than it is to recall things from the past’, whereas the reality is that the exact opposite is true: It is easier to remember things from the past than it is to learn new things.
.Ref;  http://www.artnews.com  [making art after 80]  [2013/03]  ‘You become better with age. Artists who are going strong at 80 and up find that old age offers freedom, self-assurance and room to explore’ [Hilarie M.Sheets] (05/2013). In this article [making art after 80]   she quotes the opinions of the following contemporary artists, all of which are over the age of 80 and continuing their practice.

Faith Ringold  (82) African American artist says ‘It’s not about I am going to major in this and get my degree, then I will go to work and then I will retire, it is something one has a passion for, does, and becomes, and can do it literally until I pass’. According to Ringold many women artists don’t receive acclaim before 60.  She mentions that Cuban born artist Carmen Herrera sold her first canvas at the age of 89 and now at 98 she sells in the Lisson Gallery London.

Joan Semmel (age 80) New York artist, states that out there in the same way “Relief is in not having to hustle and put herself ay she did when she was younger”, and also says on age paintings of self “to be able and willing to show vulnerability is something I don’t think I could have done when I was younger”.  She points out that  examples in the history of art of the aging female nudes are relatively few and almost none are self-portraits.
Alexander Gray (New York) “You’re not struggling with finding your voice and doubting everything you do in quiet the same way as when you are younger. It is part of self-acceptance”
Wayne Thiebaud (New York b 1920) “You don’t have to succeed, you don’t have to be famous, you don’t have to be obligated to anything except that development of the self”
Malcolm Morley (American/UK age 81) says “being an artist is a perpetual renewal, it’s always the first time” [Hilarie M.Sheets], Morley has faced several health crises over the last decade, but each time has come back, “taking new directions in his painting”. “I seem to be a cat with nine lives,” he says, adding that it’s impossible to know whether his development would have been similar if none of his mishaps had happened.
According to Ellsworth Kelly (age 90) (American colour field painter and Sculpture) “the connection between physical and mental health has only become stronger with age, dealing with some physical challenges related to aging has given me an added surge to continue to create new work,( new sculptures at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia) “making art has always being a necessity”.
Michelle Stuart, (New York artist),”Whatever you feel is undone, you should do”. She now has created a body of work which is entirely photographic; this is a medium she had previously only used for documentation. “When you are 28 you feel you’ve got infinite time in front of you, with age you become more circumspect about how you spend it, you know your time is limited, so you don’t want to waste your time doing work you don’t feel is important”.

Others that I have read about share similar sentiments.
Hokusai (Japanese) quoted that “Nothing I did before 70 was worthy of attention. At 73 I began to grasp the structure of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow.”
Ref: Sunday times 7/7/2013 [John P O Sullivan] Irish artist Sean Mc Sweeney, is 79, and in an interview with J O Sullivan, expressed that his enthusiasm for painting has not diminished. Having had a very successful show in the ‘Taylor Galleries’ Dublin recently, he is now planning a show to coincide with his 80th birthday in 2015. “I still have a great appetite to make work”, he says. “The only concession he’ll allow relates to the size of his paintings. He feels he lacks the strength and stamina to manipulate larger works these days”.

In an interview for BBC, It tells how John Bellany started his artistic career in the 1960’s, as a traditional figurative painter unlike that of his contemporaries, who generally painted pop and minimalism. The theme of death regularly occurs in his work which is often about memories and his relationships with that of his relatives. Fishing and religion, grief and loss were so embedded in the people, that it always dominated his work.  In his earlier artistic career productivity was often hampered by his drinking and after a liver transplant he got a renewed lease and appreciation of life, which urged him to work on.  He stated that after the operation “everything was in cinema scope” so his pallet changed to brilliant bright colours. In his last years he created more work than at any other time. He declares in the documentary he “loves being alive”. Sadly in 2013, John Bellany passed away in his studio, clutching a paint brush in his hand as he died. “His passion was life and he painted as if each day was his last”. [www.bellany.com].

While researching the work of artists as they age, I have found that most artists that continue to create late into old age appear to become more confident and selective in their work and more efficient with their time. Their style often alters to accommodate their changing needs, whether it is failing sight, strength, memory, views, or outlook.  Making changes can and does often lead to new discoveries and renewed enthusiasm, which in turn reawakens creative energies. When the creative person at any age is confined by limitations, this can work to their advantage in that they see the world in a different light, with a new perspective, and have maybe for their first time in their life time to stand and stare. This thought applies to my own practice, due to health problems my working options are curtailed, thus giving me this time in my life to develop further my lifelong interest in art.

Reflecting on the representations of age in art and the work of artists as they age I have noticed common trends which left me wondering are there stereotypical images of aging, made by people who are not in fact old and does the art of the elderly reflect those same tropes?
A stereotype is a thought which often occurs without any real conscious awareness, about specific types or individuals or certain ways of doing things.
Looking randomly at images of aging in art [see attached images] some depictions regularly reoccur, often depending on the relationship of the artist to the sitter.

If it’s a portrait of a father, he is often seated reading a newspaper, smoking a pipe, looking away, no eye contact, stern, and pre occupied, leaning on an elbow, and usually dressed in a manner that portrays his occupation. [See John Bellany ‘My father’ (1966) painted when JB was 24 and again (1990) when he was 48]
On the other hand if it’s the artist’s mother, so often she is seated posed elegantly, in her finest, with direct eye contact, and an extra focus on the hands which are usually crossed and resting on her lap. Looking through photographs of my own mother, I notice that the best and final images I have of her actually fit this description of a stereotypical maternal pose. When conscious of a camera she was always quick to automatically adopt this pose.
Other stereotypical images of a mother, grandmother or any elderly lady are emphasis on wrinkles, reading a book, sewing, cooking, or seated in a favourite armchair, wearing glasses, floral prints, and accompanied by pets or small children, with backgrounds in shades of green, blue or brown. [See John Bellany’s, painting when he was 24,’My Grandmother’ (1968), ‘the bereaved one’ (1968), and later when he was 43, ‘My grandmother 1985] or Dod Procter’s painting ‘Aunt Lilla’ (1943)
Youth images are stereotypically full of colour, beauty, energy, movement, strength and hope,  in contrast to the often static, grey subdued colours, and sad, lonely, lost expressions of old age.[See ‘Old Folks’ (1929) John Steuart] or Antonio Ciccone’s ‘Youth and Old age’ (1960)

Stereotyping as a form of categorizing helps to simplify and systematize information and can actually, whether we like it or not, help to make some understanding and sense of the world.
Artists Lucian Freud and John Bellany in their early work and their later work didn’t always conform to stereotypical ideas of aging when making paintings even of their loved ones.  When Freud was in primary school he was taught to tie his shoes in a certain manner, he decided there and then “never to tie them like that again”, and “to be told he must do something” was enough to make him want to do something different according to Martin Gayford in his article ‘A Freudian Portrait’. Freud doesn’t flatter, he liked to accentuate peoples imperfections; youth and old age are often depicted in an unconventional raw uneasy manner, with sagging jowls, reddening skin, signs of aging and mortality. His portraits of his mother are devoid of sentimentality, ‘[See Large interior, London W.9 (1973)] In this painting though painted alongside Jacquetta Eliot, there is a contrast of youth and aged, there is no eye contact, each figure is disconnected and absorbed in her own thoughts, their separateness and isolation is deliberate. He treats both the same, uncomfortable and grey, in “Londony colours”.
John Bellany’s ‘My father’ (1966) which he painted when he himself was aged 24, places particular focus on the weather beaten hands and head of his father who is stereotypically posed looking away, set against a red background which seems to denote his strictness, he is smoking, and resting against a painting of fishermen which draws attention to his occupation, this is in contrast to how he later painted and perceived his father in 1990. In this later painting his father is engaging with him, looks much younger, friendlier and the background is brighter and alive with colour. In ‘My grandmother’ (1968) she is posed with direct eye contact, no hands, red cheeked and set against an energetic blue background. He also painted his grandmother in ‘The bereaved one’ (1968) in a style that reminds me of Oskar Kokoschka. In this he portrays her though frail, elderly and propped up on a pillow as the “matriarch of the family”, she is dignified and sincere with direct eye contact, and he paints the open bible on her lap, which places emphasis on her strong beliefs. His 1985 painting of his Grandmother is decorative, full of colour, alive and places no emphasis on wrinkles and mortality. His perception and depiction of age notably changed as he himself grew older.
According to research by Becca Levy people’s perceptions are largely shaped by the media; those that watch more TV have more negative views of aging.
American depictions of aging of the elderly in front of TV’s, slowing down, and in rocking chairs, or [see the 2 paintings by Simon Cook Simon Cook ] creates negative perceptions, whereas China is known to have the most positive stereotypes of aging. The Tarahumara tribe in Mexico have a belief that they gain strength as they age. In their 60’s and over, they remain able to run hundreds of miles while playing a long distance version of kickball according to Californian psychologist Martinez.

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The lessons I can learn from this research is that the way one views the aging process may and can influence how ones ages and works as an artist. Research has linked negative perceptions of aging in people over 50 with an average 7.5 year decrease in life span. [Source Peri]. To “paint each day as if it were your last”, is to live in the now. Mortality doesn’t age discriminate, Henri Gaudier-Brezeska and Vincent Van Gogh managed to pack a lifetime of work into a few short years leaving behind their legacy of art, and all the already mentioned contemporary elderly artists are busy creating theirs.
All artists, regardless of their age, but depending on their stage of life, have a personal unique perspective when portraying representations of age, though common nuances may appear, each interpretation is individual, age is just a number and in the eye of the beholder.

 

All images are from bridgemaneducation.com

Historical and contemporary images of positive and negative stereotypical and non-stereotypical representations of age.

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