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Thursday, May 11, 2017

She's Not There (yet)

Extreme old age seems liberating for many artists, who are finally able to take risks they couldn’t contemplate when they were younger.

Drunkenness of Noah, 1515, Giovanni Bellini (then 85)
The Duke of Edinburgh recently announced that he will be retiring soon after his 96th birthday. Either he has remarkable genes or his expectations are radically different from the gaffers I know. Most people are anxious to quit working as soon as they can. 

On the other hand, artists, like royalty, are bound by noblesse oblige. In other words, we must act in a way that conforms to our position and reputation. But how long can we keep it up?

Last night I toddled over to Northampton, MA to see the final show of the 1960s British rock band, the Zombies. They played their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle from start to finish one last time, after which they’re all moving on to something else.

Toward Another Light, 1985, Marc Chagall (then 97)
This was not a PBS special reunion band, where they prop up one aging member of a long-gone band and pad him with a backing orchestra. All four surviving players were present. Of these, Rod Argent, Hugh Grundy and Colin Blunstone turn 72 this year. Chris White is 74. Jim Rodford, who plays with them now, is 76.

They continue to play to the highest standard of musicianship, a standard that most young artists will never achieve, let alone maintain.

On the day before he died at the age of 97, Marc Chagall produced his last work, a lithograph entitled Toward Another Light. A portrait of his younger self with his late wife Bella is handing him a bouquet, while the Angel of Death waits to receive him. That's what you might call a strong finish.

Cover of Jazz, 1947, by Henri Matisse, 1947. Matisse was bedridden after abdominal cancer at age 72. He turned to cutting colored paper. Jazz was completed when he was 74.
A striking number of artists have been highly productive late into old age, including Giovanni Bellini (who died at 86), Michelangelo (89), Titian (86 or 88), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, (86), Claude Monet (86), Henri Matisse (84), Joan MirĂ³ (90), Pablo Picasso (91), and Georgia O’Keeffe (98).

Faith Ringgold, who is now 86, drew the connection between visual arts and musicianship in an ArtNews interview in 2013. “You’ve got to do just like the musicians do, you’ve got to practice every day,” she said. “I plan to do that for the rest of my life, practice every day.”

Google's 12th Birthday, 2010 Wayne Thiebaud (then 89)
Wayne Thiebaud, who will be an eye-watering 97 this year, pointed out the relationship between physical well-being and creative control.  “The plumb line in the body gives us a sense of things like grace or awkwardness or tension.”

Extreme old age seems liberating for many artists, who are finally able to take risks they couldn’t contemplate when they were younger.

“Working becomes your own little Eden,” Thiebaud said. “You make this little spot for yourself. 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.”

1 comment:

Carol Douglas said...

An addendum: I listened to “Odessey and Oracle” again on my way home to Maine. (No, I’m not illiterate; the title was misspelled by the graphic designer and remains like that today.) I think, if anything, the Zombies’ musicianship is BETTER today than it was fifty years ago. What’s weird is that the original songs were passionate in a way only a twenty-something can be passionate. But it’s not a fraud for these oldsters to sing them; they are revisiting their own youth. As I said in the post, surreal.