Saturday, March 14, 2015

Entry - 3.14.15


The other day I was talking with a friend at work when he informed me that last year he purchased a snow blower.  He admitted that being a city dweller he only had about forty feet of sidewalk to clear, a task he could usually knock off rather quickly, but he had felt that it was time to move to a mechanized approach to snow removal.  I was confused.  My friend, having been a frequenter of the local gym for many years, is in terrific shape, sporting bulging biceps that, appear to me, sufficient to toss an abominable snowman, let alone a few shovels-full of snow, a football field’s length.

I’ve noticed over the years that most Americans find honest, purposeful labor to be distasteful.  They will eagerly pay a professional to mow their lawns, landscape their properties, plow their driveways and even walk their dogs.  The more ambitious among us buy snow blowers and ride-on mowers and actually do the jobs themselves.  Ironically enough, many of these same folk purchase gym or health club memberships to secure a location where they can exercise or tone up on modern equipment with a personal trainer to goad them on to ever greater exertions.

I’ve always believed that the individual must resist the allure of inertia.  If I have the choice between a flight of stairs or an escalator, I opt for the stairs.  If I’m close enough to my destination to make the journey on foot, I never take a subway or bus.  When a handsaw will do the job, why resort to power equipment.  When my wife and I purchased our current home over twenty years ago, I recognized that the property presented some new challenges, the cleared portion measuring about an acre and its driveway being immense.  At the time, I thought to myself that I was still pretty young and determined that I would do as much as possible of the labor about the place manually… at least, until inevitable physical deterioration prevented my doing so.  Hence I cleared my driveway of snow myself with a shovel, working slowly and methodically over an hour or two… sometimes even longer.  If I got out early enough after a storm, I began my work in a perfect silence with only the crunch of my boots in the snow to disturb the profound austerity of the moment.  But with time, my neighbors would emerge from their homes and a chorus of throbbing engines would accompany my labor.  Occasionally a kindly neighbor, having quickly completed his work, would come over with a mechanized plow or snow blower to assist me, but I would wave him away with an appreciative smile; I savored the sense of accomplishment when I finished the job myself.

In warmer weather, my lawn ( for want of a better word that is how I will refer to the mesh of chicory, skunk grass and dandelions which surrounds our home)… my lawn presents difficulties, being sprawling, untamed, littered with rocks and debris and topographically challenged (meaning that there are runs at nearby ski resorts that are sloped less acutely).  But being ever the Luddite, I determined that I would mow the “lawn” with a standard, gas-powered mower, even refusing to upgrade to a chain driven model.  Again, as with the shoveling, the job takes a while, but I always feel that in going the more difficult route I am gaining the benefit of working my heart and lungs and pushing my muscles to perform as they were intended.  I do my own house painting, carpentry and plumbing.  I’ve put down floors in my home, laid cement slabs, hung sheetrock and done masonry work.  I’ve cleared downed trees myself using a chainsaw and a wheelbarrow.  I must admit that the quality of my workmanship can vary greatly, but whatever job I tackle generally holds together.

As our four sons grew up, one by one, they began participating in the regular maintenance that our property requires and, of course, they are acolytes within my religion of the sanctity of manual labor and self-reliance.  Now that there are no longer little ones about the place to attend to, my wife often assists with the upkeep too.  I can’t say how long my stubborn practices will last, but I hope to continue them for as long as possible.  I believe that when I first moved in my neighbors viewed me as a hopeless rube newly transplanted from NYC; now, two decades later, I suppose I’m considered an eccentric crackpot.  That’s okay with me.  Running with the pack always makes me a bit uneasy.


The weather’s been somewhat nasty this past February, with significant snowstorms hitting us every few days followed up with frigid temperatures.  The last major storm we experienced brought particularly heavy snow accumulations, and we spent a good part of the day digging ourselves out.  Exhausted, I went to bed early that night, only to find myself lying in bed wide awake at 3:00 AM the following morning.  Exasperated, I left my bed, got a tall glass of water, peered out the window to be sure that we didn’t get any more snow and then sank into a chair in our family room.  I glanced around the dimly lit room, my eyes settling on my work boots still sitting side by side precisely where I had placed them after pulling them off upon coming in from my day’s labor.  I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of his own boots completed more than one and a quarter centuries ago.

Van Gogh - A Pair of Boots - 1887
Van Gogh painted his footwear several times during his career.  He didn’t have a foot fetish, nor was he just looking for a banal subject matter to tackle on a day when the weather wouldn’t permit him to get outside.  His boots make a statement.  They are not the possessions of a wealthy, powerful man.  They are not expensive, polished or fashionable.  They are work boots constructed with purpose in mind, destined for years of labor.  Van Gogh’s boots are splattered with filth and worn and pitted with the abrasions that come from regular use.  They lie splayed on the ground, their laces strewn about them, just as Van Gogh left them, discarded after his day’s work.  These are the boots he wore while trudging across fields and meadows and along dirt roads in search of an acceptable scene to record in paint.  These are the same boots he wore while standing for hours in the elements focused on his canvas.  By presenting us with the reality of these boots, Van Gogh is informing us that he doesn’t see painting as the activity of an effete, educated elite.  He sees himself as a laborer, a man of the people.

Van Gogh was born in 1853 in a southern province of Holland.  The son of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Gogh was always pulled between the poles of art and religion.  An early effort to establish a career with a firm of art dealers ended with his termination at the age of 23 because he could not hide from his employers and customers how unhappy he was selling art like a hawker of hand soap or legs of mutton.  Van Gogh then was drawn to a religious life, studying for nearly two years to become a pastor.  When appointed in 1879 to a temporary missionary post in a mining community in Belgium, Van Gogh felt that he should live like the people to whom he preached, residing in a small shack, sleeping on straw and eating the same food as the workers.  Church authorities, feeling that he was degrading the dignity of his office, removed him from his post.  Even once he fully embraced his vocation as an artist, Van Gogh continued to empathize with the plight of the working class.  He greatly admired and emulated the work of Jean Francois Millet, who presented images of the peasant at work as the ideal Christian laboring in a sanctified landscape under the watchful eye of a benevolent god.

Millet - Shepherdess with her Flock - 1864
While still working on his Potato Eaters, he wrote the following to his brother:

“The point is that I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and – a meal honestly earned.  I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people. So the last thing I would want is for people to admire or approve of it without knowing why.”

He goes on to state:

“And similarly, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a painting of peasant life a conventional polish. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, fine - that's not unhealthy - if a stable reeks of manure - all right, that's what a stable is all about - if a field has the smell of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano and manure - that's properly healthy, especially for city dwellers. Such pictures might prove helpful to them. But a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.”
-          Vincent Van Gogh Letter to Theo Van Gogh, April 30, 1885

Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters - 1885
Throughout his short career, Van Gogh lived among working people, painting their portraits, their abodes, the establishments they frequented.  Even once he had relocated to France and had fallen under the influence of the avant garde, Van Gogh continued to paint the common folk who peopled his world: peasant farmers, a postman, a zouave, fishermen, a gardener, café owners and an orderly, just to name a few.

Van Gogh - The Red Vineyard - 1888
Van Gogh and Millet are certainly not unique in their interest in addressing themes relating to the working class.  Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet, Gustave Caillebotte, Ilya Repin, Wilhelm Leibl, Käthe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros come readily to mind.  I think that independent art sellers who catered to the tastes of middle class customers had to arise before work that presented laborers as significant and sympathetic could be marketed.  After the French Revolution, intellectuals and politicians were compelled to consider how to reformulate their societies into more equitable structures that would permit laborers a higher standard of living and better representation in government.  Later on, many artists embraced Marxist and Socialist theory, directly addressing themes in support of the proletariat in their imagery.

Courbet - The Stonebreakers - 1849 to 50

Daumier - The Third-Class Railway Carriage - 1862

Repin - Barge Haulers on the Volga - 1872

Caillebotte - The Floor Planers - 1875

Kollwitz - March of the Weavers - 1893 to 97

Rivera - Woman Grinding Maize - 1924
Two extremely good books that examine the function of art within the context of social revolution are Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art and Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art.


“The socialist artist and writer adopts the historical viewpoint of the working class.  But this does not mean that he is in duty bound to approve every decision or action taken by whatever party or character represents the working class in his work.  He sees in the working class the determining, but not the only, force necessary for the defeat of capitalism, for the growth of a classless society and the unlimited development of material and spiritual forces of production to liberate the human personality.  In other words, he identifies himself fundamentally with socialist society in its process of growth; whereas bourgeois artists and writers, if they are of any importance, inevitably dissociate themselves from the world of the triumphant bourgeoisie.” 
-          Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, 1959


“After 1830 these whims come to an end entirely and it becomes obvious that there is in fact no massive public apart from the middle class.  But as soon as the emancipation of the middle class is accomplished, the struggle of the working class for its rights already begins.  And that is the second of the decisively important movements which proceed from the July revolution and monarchy.  Hitherto the class struggles of the proletariat had been fused with those of the middle class, and it had been mainly the political aspirations of the middle classes for which the working class had fought.  The developments after 1830 first open its eyes and supply it with proof that, in fighting for its rights, it can rely on no other class.  Simultaneously with the awakening class-consciousness of the proletariat, socialist theory acquires its first more or less concrete form and there also arises the programme of an artistic activist movement which for radicalism and consistency surpasses all previous movements of a similar nature.  “L’art pour l’art” goes through its first crisis and has from now on to fight not only against the idealism of the classicists but also against utilitarianism of both ‘social’ and ‘bourgeois’ art.”
-          Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 4, 1951

Both Fischer and Hauser recognize the development of a new form of art that represents the perspective of the working class.  Certainly, broadening the perspective of art to address the concerns of the working class was a positive development.  Prior to the nineteenth century, the worker or peasant was usually included in art and literature as a comic foil, the ignorant buffoon motivated by the basest of desires.  The problem with art that champions the role of the worker is that it can often be pedantic and unnuanced, losing in aesthetics what it gains in clarity of message.  Let’s face it, art that aims to glorify the role of the worker tends to reek of propaganda.  Mukhina’s monumental sculpture makes me cringe a bit, leaving me feeling wary and manipulated.  Compare her image of the proletariat with Caillebotte’s floor planers, who perform a tedious, strenuous job in a small, stuffy room and smell of the sweat of their labor, and the contrast between absurd idealization and sober reality becomes all too obvious.

Vera Mukhina - Monument to the Proletariat and Agriculture - 1937

Chinese Cultural Revolution Poster
On the other hand, art cannot be solely about aesthetics… about its makers’ ongoing dialogue with the art of the past and present.  Such work becomes unintelligible and inaccessible to the masses and is doomed to be perceived as irrelevant by the society in which it has been created.  I am not advocating a populist art such as that produced by, let’s say, Thomas Kinkade or Leroy Neiman, but I do believe that art that doesn’t provide an emotional “doorway” for the working class, as well as the intellectual elite, has failed in its purpose.

In my own work, I’ve learned to shy away from themes intended to “enlighten” my viewer, to expose some kernel of truth which I’ve gathered along the way on my life journey.  I can readily think of two exceptions to that assertion.  These works were both inspired by the collapse of the Soviet Union, in particular my fear that, without a philosophical counterbalance, however flawed, to capitalist ideology, the worker would be vulnerable to all kinds of extreme abuse, resulting in an inequitable redistribution of wealth in our society.  Unfortunately, I am witnessing my worst fears being realized today.

 
Wickham - The Triumph of Capitalism (Etching) - 1990c

Wickham - Lenin Icon - 1989c

Wickham - Lenin Icon (detail) - 1989c

I encourage all readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: gerardwickham@gmail.com.

Please note: The photograph of my work boots was staged at a later date with the boots deliberately positioned to replicate the arrangement in Van Gogh’s painting.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Entry - 1.15.15

While still an undergraduate art student in college, I fell under the spell of the Austrian modernists active at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  These artists did not garner a lot of attention in those days, being only briefly touched upon in my art history classes… if addressed at all.   Occasionally, I would discover amongst my fellow students a like-minded enthusiast and would take delight in sharing materials and observations.  Before the arrival of the internet, it was a difficult process to research lesser known artists.  For instance, I could not find a single monograph on Klimt or Schiele at any of the bookstores in the local malls nearby to my home on the south shore of Long Island.  I had learned that Manhattan was the place to go to find what couldn’t be found elsewhere, so, whenever I made one of my rare trips to the city, I would always try to reserve a portion of my day to visiting a bookstore.  And more often than not The Strand was the bookstore I visited.




The Strand has a long history going back to the 1920’s, having been located in Manhattan since its inception and settling in its current location in Greenwich Village at the corner of Broadway and East 12th in the 50’s.  The Strand, housing tightly crowded rows of bookshelves that tower stories above the customers and a fleet of tables loaded with boxes of rare used books, is an incredible resource for booklovers.  Often the merchandise would spill out onto the sidewalk, trailing around the building beneath the store’s low-tech, wraparound awning.  The place was always packed, but the customers didn’t seem to be buying books; they browsed for hours through the stacks or settled on the floor for prolonged perusal.  Amazingly enough, I could always find what I wanted there – usually a thick, oversized, hardcover art book.

As is the case today, art books were pretty expensive.  While an undergraduate, I worked Work-Study* at minimum wage to pay for my commutation expenses, textbooks, art supplies, meals and clothing, and money was very tight.  Buying a costly art book for my own gratification was not a luxury that I permitted myself often, so I made my selection carefully, combing through aisles of books before making my choice.  And at that time, my selection would be a monograph on Klimt or Schiele.  Back then, even costly art books contained black and white reproductions with a small selection of images in color.  It was frustrating to be unable to fully experience the paintings addressed in the narrative, but that was the norm – so you didn’t expect anything else.  Any book concentrating on fin de siècle Austria would make mention of an artist named Richard Gerstl, devoting a paragraph or two to him and including a single reproduction of one of his paintings, without exception in black and white.  I was always intrigued by whatever Gerstl image the author or publisher chose to include in the book.  The paintings always seemed unconventional and disturbing.  They didn’t floor me but did pique my curiosity.

Over the years, tastes change and evolve for various reasons, and, today, Klimt and Schiele enjoy popular reputations only exceeded by those of such perennial favorites as Monet or Van Gogh.  But while the popularity of his contemporaries has been on the rise, Gerstl’s reputation has remained relatively static.  There are some good reasons for this.  Gerstl’s career was terribly short, his surviving oeuvre consisting of sixty six paintings and eight drawings.  During his lifetime, he never exhibited his work, his first show occurring more than twenty years after his death.  Without the internet, it would be nearly impossible for anyone interested in his art to see a representative sampling of his work.  Luckily, recently a few sites devoted to Gerstl’s life and work have cropped up, and with each passing year more images of his artwork are available on the internet.  The more work I see, the more I am convinced that Gerstl is worthy of wider repute and the more I mourn the loss of a talented artist who had the potential to contribute so much more to his era.

Gerstl was born in Vienna in 1883 to a fairly prosperous family.  From the beginning of his life, he seemed destined to suffer difficulties due to his uncompromising, nonconformist personality.  At a young age he was expelled from the prestigious Piaristengymnasium in Vienna due to discipline issues, forcing his father to hire private tutors for his education.  Gerstl’s interest in pursuing a career in the arts was not encouraged by his father, and their relationship became strained as a result of it.  At fifteen, he was granted admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, at which a difficult relationship with his instructor resulted in his working two years on his own.  During the summers of 1900 and 1901, he worked under the tutelage of Simon Hollósy and eventually began studying formally with Heinrich Lefler, an artist whose more relaxed style of instruction was more agreeable to Gerstl.  Unfortunately, friction resulting from Gerstl’s refusal to participate in a procession in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph led to his departure from Lefler’s studio.  By 1906, Gerstl was working in his own studio in relative isolation with no opportunity to exhibit his work.

Gerstl early on showed great competency, his work bearing similarity to the youthful academic efforts of Klimt and Schiele.  As a student under the direction of an established master, inevitably, he adopts a conservative style, but even his initial efforts exhibit a constrained intensity.

Gerstl - Portrait of Waldemar Unger II - 1905

Much to the chagrin of his instructors, Gerstl was interested in the latest trends in painting and readily experimented with the stylistic innovations of the avant-garde.  At the end of the nineteenth century, post impressionism and pointillism would have been the most radical styles to develop within the European artistic venue, the work of Van Gogh and Seurat being particularly influential.

Gerstl - Portrait of Emil Gerstl (father) - 1906
Similar to what Edvard Munch experienced when experimenting with a pointillist technique, Gerstl found the rigid system of patterning dots too restrictive and mechanical and began using broken brushwork to infuse his paintings with a frenzied energy more conducive to his personal inclinations.  In a relatively short span of time, Gerstl mastered the latest techniques, filtered these influences through the prism of his unique outlook and transformed them into a new vocabulary, which would eventually become known as “expressionism”.

Gerstl - Portrait of a Gentleman - 1907

Gerstl - Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg - 1906

Gerstl - Woman in a Green Dress - 1908

Gerstl - The Fey Sisters - 1905

Gerstl - Self-Portrait - 1904 to 05

Gerstl - Man in a Meadow (Alban Berg) - 1907

Gerstl - Portrait of Henryka Cohn - 1908

Gerstl - Nude Self-Portrait - 1908
Until recently, I had never seen any of Gerstl’s landscapes.  They capture the sense that the world is in volatile flux, that our presence here on this orb careening through space is precarious and transitory.  I think that these landscapes are masterful and merit greater attention than they have received previously.

Gerstl - On the Danube Canal - 1908

Gerstl - Traunsee with the Schlafende Griechin Mountain - 1908

Gerstl - Lakeside Road near Gmunden - 1907
By 1907, Gerstl was working in near isolation, having little contact with other artists.  Instead his interest in music led him to establish contact with composers Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky, who lived within the same building.  Through Schoenberg in particular, Gerstl found himself admitted into a supportive intellectual and social community.  The two men developed a close relationship based on a respect for each other’s art.  Gerstl gave Schoenberg art lessons, painted his portrait on several occasions and was accepted as a regular visitor to the composer’s household.  Gerstl painted portraits of many contemporary composers associated with Schoenberg and the composer’s family as well, including his wife, Mathilde.  At some point, an extended affair developed between Gerstl and Mathilde, which was discovered by Schoenberg in the summer of 1908.  At that point, the lovers fled to Vienna briefly, until Mathilde was persuaded to return to her husband and children.

Gerstl lost his lover, was excluded from his only circle of friends, saw his connection to an intellectual fellowship severed and, looking ahead, could anticipate few prospects for his art.  Unhinged by his circumstances, Gerstl set a fire in his studio on the night of November 4, 1908.  It appears that in an attempt to eradicate all evidence of his existence, he burned almost all of his drawings, letters, notices and personal writings.  Miraculously, most of his canvases survived the blaze.  While the fire consumed his possessions, Gerstl positioned himself before his studio mirror, hanged himself and somehow managed to put a knife through his heart.  He was 25 years old.  We would know nothing at all of this man’s art had not his family preserved his undamaged paintings in a warehouse for 22 years, at which time his brother presented his work to the art dealer, Otto Kallir, who agreed to show it at his Neue Galerie.

Perhaps my favorite work of Gerstl is his laughing self-portrait.  It has a very contemporary and spontaneous feel to it – like a Polaroid taken with a flash.  Few portrait painters have addressed laughing subjects because of the difficulty in having a model pose over a long duration of time while maintaining a natural expression.  A genuine laugh lasts but a fleeting moment.  Gerstl has captured his expression expertly.  But his laugh is not one of joy or camaraderie or drunken debauchery.  His smile is excessive, his mouth open and drawn tautly back exposing an endless array of teeth.  From the first time I saw this painting, I got the feeling that the artist’s face was lit by a roaring fire.  There is a knowing and demonic glint in his eyes.  The broken brushwork behind the head suggests a fracturing, disjunct space which we cannot penetrate, a place that we cannot share.  Even if the artist’s perspective results from insanity, he is our superior; he inhabits a realm of heightened emotion which we, his pedestrian audience, will never understand.

Gerstl - Self-Portrait Laughing - 1907
As always, I encourage readers to comment here, but, for those who would prefer to comment privately, I can be emailed at: gerardwickham@gmail.com.

*Note: The American Work-Study Program is a federally-funded program that permits eligible college students to work on campus for minimum wage between classes.  Without Work-Study, I don’t believe I would have made it through my undergraduate years at a state university.  Schools benefit by securing cheap, enthusiastic labor, while granting an opportunity for talented students for whom a college education might otherwise be out of reach.  Today most children of moderate income families no longer qualify for the program, another indication of our country’s immoral and misguided assault on the middle class.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Entry - 11.18.14

I turned 55 on my last birthday.  Birthdays generally are not a big deal for me, at least in the sense that I don’t get anxious or depressed about growing a year older.  Believe it or not, turning 20 was difficult for me because I felt that I was leaving childhood behind and embarking on a new life filled with adult responsibilities.  And based on my experiences, I can say that I was quite justified in being dismayed.  Being an adult is no bed of roses.  After that, it’s been pretty clear sailing until 55, a milestone year for me because, where I work, early retirement becomes a possibility at that age.   For many years now, I’ve looked ahead to the day when I would qualify for retirement, fully intending to immediately tender my resignation and begin a new life focused on creating art.  It appears that financial considerations are not going to let that happen… at least, not yet, but just confronting the possibility of retirement has gotten me thinking about a slew of issues.

I wonder what kind of shape I will be in when I eventually leave my job.  Right now, I feel that I’m in pretty good condition.  There’s a little gray in my beard, and I sometimes get frustrated at not being able to pull out of my head a commonly used word or a familiar name; but I remain relatively fit, able still to cross country ski or hike for hours in challenging terrain.  I would say, on the whole, I’m doing okay.

Considering my artistic production over my career, I would have to admit that I’ve never fully tapped into my potential.  There have been times in the past, particularly during my schooling, when I’ve worked my artistic “muscle” so thoroughly and consistently that significant progress was made nearly unconsciously.  I’ve recognized that, if I’d made such considerable headway while still addressing academic requirements and working part-time to pay for my schooling, having an extended period of pure artistic focus would certainly lead to some incredible results.  Whatever slow progress I’ve made in recent years is the result of sheer tenacity and the determined application of intellect (rather than intuition).  So I’m rather anxious to see if this anticipated late blossoming comes to fruition.

Luckily for me (and the world), I don’t want to be a professional athlete or a rock star, careers reserved for the very young.  Without a doubt, most artists produce their most important and challenging work while still relatively young.  The rule of thumb, I would say, is: the twenties are for erratic experimentation, the thirties see the mature results of that experimentation, the forties succumb to facile (and profitable) regurgitation of the achievements of the thirties and the fifties bear witness to an inevitable decline in abilities.  Not a very optimistic forecast for someone hoping to produce his best work post-55.  Is it realistic of me to expect that given favorable circumstances I will rise to the occasion?  Or will my skills and intellect so erode that even with steady, applied labor and focus I will be unable to accomplish much of anything?  This set my mind to thinking about how age impacted the careers of many successful artists.  How did other artist fare?

In my opinion, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is one of the most talented artists of the 20th century.  His mature work embodies the technical innovations of the Fauves while asserting a worldview in revolt against the conventions and morality of his age.  There is a depth, a seriousness, to his work.  I would say his approach was intuitive, and seldom did his intuitions fail him.  Matisse’s art is about art; Kirchner’s is about the world.



Mature Work - Kirchner - Marzella - 1909/10
Kirchner and his fellow Die Brücke members were most active and influential in the early 1900’s.  Even before the start of World War I, which was a cataclysmic event for them, this tightknit brotherhood of expressionist artists was already fracturing.  Kirchner was working more independently in Berlin, where he developed a crippling morphine addiction.  Being drafted into the army at the start of the war led to a complete breakdown, a military discharge, a stay in a sanitarium and, eventually, self-imposed exile in Switzerland.

During the last phase of his life, Kirchner became obsessed with his reputation, his standing in the art world, in his historic legacy.  He understood that Picasso and Matisse were universally accepted as the two giants of modernism and hungered for the recognition he felt he too deserved.  He changed the dates on his youthful work to make it seem that his innovations had come earlier.  To make his art appear more radical, he over-painted paintings completed decades ago, thereby, in my opinion, ruining them.  Under the pseudonym, Louis de Marsalle, he reviewed his own wok, providing the attention and praise that the critics were withholding.

Seeking to embrace the most contemporary vocabulary, he developed a cubist-inspired, abstract style that was ill-suited for his personal predilections and abilities.  The resulting paintings were unintuitive, cartoony, clumsy and plodding, having none of the spontaneous energy and innate grace of his mature work.  At the same time, the Nazis had declared his art “degenerate”, his work being removed from museums and confiscated from private collections.  What couldn’t be sold abroad was destroyed.  By 1938, Kirchner felt isolated and abandoned by the intellectual community; on his 58th birthday, he received not a single congratulatory communication, at that time a noteworthy break from protocol within German-speaking art circles.  That same year he committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart.


Late Work - Kirchner - Cafe in Davos - 1928

Late Work - Kirchner - The Rider - 1932
Artists regularly reevaluate their mature accomplishments later in life, often with disastrous consequences.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for instance, began to doubt the impressionist approach after seeing the classic work of great masters from the past while traveling in Italy in 1881.  Nearly a decade was devoted to painting in a style inspired, in particular, by the works of Raphael, Velazquez and Rubens, a mode or representation that stressed the precise outlines of forms and rejected the feathery brushwork that characterized his earlier work.  These paintings are awkward and cloying, poised uncomfortably between classicism and impressionism, lacking the restraint and austerity of his classical models while continuing to embrace the bright, saccharine palette preferred by the impressionists.

Mature Work - Renoir - La Promenade - 1870

Mature Work - Renoir - Path Through the High Grass - 1876/77

Late Work - Renoir - The Umbrellas - 1883

Late Work - Renoir - The Large Bathers - 1884/87

Renoir subsequently recognized that he was moving in the wrong direction and returned in his last years to an impressionist mode of painting.
 


Otto Dix, an influential member of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, wasn’t so lucky.  Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, a movement that reacted to the horrors of the First World War, rejected the optimism and utopianism that often characterized German Expressionism.  Dix and similarly minded artists like Christian Schad and George Grosz wanted to dissect their society and reveal the hypocrisy, depravity and greed that discredited the apparent comfort and security offered by social norms and long established institutions.  Dix painted capitalists, war cripples and prostitutes in a painstakingly detailed style that necessitated the application of paint to the canvas in numerous thin layers called glazes.  While reminiscent of the work of early northern artists like Van Eyck and Holbein, Dix’s paintings did not strive to present a convincing illusion of reality but relied on distortion and exaggeration to suggest a kind of hyper-realism, exposing more than just surface features.


Mature Work - Dix - Self-Portrait - 1912

Mature Work - Dix - Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden - 1926
Like Kirchner, Dix witnessed his work being labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis.  In 1939, he was even arrested and held for questioning for possible involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler in Munich.  But because his realist style seemed to be in accord with Nazi standards, Dix was permitted to continue painting.  Under the cloud of government supervision, Dix chose to withdraw inwardly, painting mainly landscapes, a subject matter not explored previously and one sure to prove acceptable to the censors.  These landscapes are magnificent, embodying a pervasive mood of melancholic nostalgia.

Mature Work - Dix - Randegg in the Snow with Ravens - 1935
After the war, Dix, free of restrictions, rejected his mature technique and embraced an expressionist mode of painting.  As he stated, “The painting has become more spontaneous, the lousy care one had to take with the constant application of the various coats of translucent paint is gone.”  Regrettably, Dix was not temperamentally suited to be a spontaneous expressionist, and the paintings of his last years are nearly all failures, coloristically unpleasant, straddling illusionist and expressionist approaches, never fully committing to a break with realism.

Late Work - Dix - Self-Portrait as a Prisoner of War - 1947

Late Work - Dix - The Resurrection - 1949
While Willem de Kooning never broke with an expressionist style of painting, his work did go through a radical change at the end of his life.  De Kooning lived to be nearly 93 years old and, throughout my youth and early adulthood, had represented for me a resilient relic of the glory days of abstract expressionism.  Other giants of the movement didn’t experience nearly comparable longevity.  His talent seemed limitless, and his work was just dazzling.  But, over the years, he imperceptibly withdrew from the art scene, and, by the 1980’s, one didn’t hear a lot about him anymore.  Then in early 1997, MOMA planned a de Kooning show featuring “The Late Paintings, The 1980’s”, which stirred up controversy since it was becoming known that advanced age and years of alcoholism had diminished the artist cognitively to the point of dementia.  I’m not sure how one measures such things, but it was generally accepted that 1987 was the cutoff year, the point at which his mental lapses became so acute as to impair his abilities.  The show presented work from 1981 through 1987, and the big question was: recognizing that de Kooning’s mature work was selling at record prices, were family and patrons attempting to reap great profit by foisting on the public the output of an artist clearly compromised, proposing that it represented a late flowering, one last stylistic innovation by an artist known for innovation?

Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - 1984

Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - 1985

Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - ?
Being greatly interested in de Kooning’s work, I had looked forward to seeing this show, not knowing what to expect but sure that the painting s would be worth viewing.  Upon seeing the collection, I was disappointed.  The artist was clearly simplifying, most images being composed of a series of sweeping strokes of paint on bare white ground.  Most were constructed using only primary colors, making them bright and cheerful.  There’s no doubt in my mind that de Kooning had been considering Matisse’s last cut-outs, work that was produced when the artist triumphed over physical limitations to create an innovative and elemental new style.  While it’s evident from Matisse’s cut-outs that he is fully engaged and tapping into a lifetime of experience, the late work of de Kooning confirms the artist’s inevitable decline.  The brushwork is flat and unvaried, exhibiting none of the energy and spontaneity of his earlier work.  There is little nuance to these lines.  They are opaque and seldom vary in thickness.  There is no accidental splattering, dripping or smearing of paint, the hallmarks of action painting.  Each stroke has hard, defined edges, beginning with and ending in blunt stubs or tapered and onion-domed tips.  The lines fill voids on the canvas, often mechanically echoing the path of a preexisting line a foot or so away on the canvas.  I suspect that much of de Kooning’s mature abstract work started out similarly.  It appears to me that de Kooning didn’t make a choice not to take these further but instead found himself unable to chart a passage beyond these skeletal beginnings.  De Kooning died while the MOMA show was still on exhibit.

We’ve explored the work of artists either clearly experiencing physical decline in ability or undergoing late-in-life reevaluations of their mature oeuvres.  Particularly in artists who’ve enjoyed uncommon longevity, it’s probably more customary to see a gradual erosion of skills without a radical stylistic break with the work of the past.  For instance, Balthus continued in his later years to explore erotic themes, focused primarily on the female nude.  His mature work was usually composed of multiple layers of encrusted paint that reflected am organic construction – which continued with his later work, though the layering appears to be more mechanical and often obscures and conflicts with the imagery.  It’s not that the later work failed completely; it simply didn’t exhibit the conviction and purposefulness of his earlier work.  I should add that Balthus lived to be nearly 93 years old.

Mature Work - Balthus - Children - 1937

Late Work - Balthus - The Moth - 1960

Late Work - Balthus - The Cat in the Mirror - 1978
Lucian Freud, an artist I respect greatly, for many years showed no diminishment in his abilities as he aged.  After visiting a show of his latest paintings, I would walk away in awe of his mental acuity and unfathomable technical skills.  His work resulted from intense observation and hours of painstaking labor, far exceeding anything that I, his junior by half a century, could hope to match.  Visiting one of his late shows became akin to attending a boxing match featuring reigning champion, Lucian Freud, versus the able challenger, Age.  Every time you were sure he would retreat to his corner for good, Freud would leap to his feet at the sound of the bell, gloves up and ready to go on.  Into his eighties, the artist continued to produce paintings that matched the best of his mature work.  It was only in his last exhibition or two that I sadly noticed any weakening of his powers, the paintings becoming more generalized, no longer exhibiting the unfathomable focus and superhuman effort of his earlier work.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would still gladly hang in my home any work included in those last shows and unquestionably study it and learn from it years into the future, but it was evident that Freud had turned a corner.

Late Work - Freud - After Breakfast - 2001

Late Work - Freud - Irish Woman on a Bed - 2003/04

Late Work - Freud - Naked Portrait - 2004/05
Permit me to digress a moment to tell a story.  Back in 1975, when I was still in high school, an 85 year old artist in Kansas City was completing work on a commission that was awarded him a year before.  The artist had tackled this commission with energy and enthusiasm, creating a mural six by ten feet filled with over a dozen figures.  Before beginning, he made countless sketches and oil studies and created a plasticine model of the whole composition.  He used friends of his daughter and other local acquaintances as models for many of the figures and even traveled to the Ozarks to find authentic musicians willing to be portrayed in the final painting.  Exhaustively researching his imagery, he collected photographs of the specific train he felt would be appropriate to his motif.  Even for a young man this commission would have been a challenge, but this 85 year old had thrown himself totally into the project, completing the mural ahead of his anticipated schedule.  He had put his last strokes on the canvas the day before but was as yet unsure as to whether the painting would require a few final adjustments.  On January 19th, 1975, after having his dinner, he went out to his studio, informing his wife of his intention to sign the painting if he found that he was satisfied with it.  When he didn’t return to the house by 8:30 pm, his wife went out to the studio to see what had become of him.  She found him on the floor of the studio, immediately in front of his work.  He had died of a massive heart attack.  The painting remained unsigned.

Late Work - Benton - The Sources of Country Music - 1975
The artist was Thomas Hart Benton and the mural was The Sources of Country Music, in my estimation one of the artist’s finest works.  I have always appreciated this work for its complex, energetic composition unified by rhythms of strong diagonals and an overall sweeping, circular vortex of activity.  It seems a perfect summing up of many of the themes which Benton addressed throughout his life.  Every now and then I would use The Sources of Country Music as my work computer’s background, long before I knew the story behind its creation.  After learning how Benton had passed away upon completing one last great work, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of him.  I mean are there any among us who wouldn’t want to go like that?

Rembrandt didn’t live to be particularly old.  He died when he was 63 years old.  In his youth, he had experienced great professional success, but his last years were defined by personal tragedy and financial instability.  By the time he was in his late 30’s, Rembrandt had seen three of his four children die in infancy and his wife, Saskia, succumb to tuberculosis.  Poor investments and living beyond his means led ultimately to serious financial hardship.  At 50, he was forced to sell off his own paintings and his collection of antiquities; four years later, his house and printing press were lost.  A relationship with his surviving son’s nurse ended poorly with Rembrandt being charged with breach of promise and forced to pay alimony.  A second relationship with his maid could never be legitimized or Rembrandt would lose control of a trust set up for his son.  Throughout these turbulent years, Rembrandt’s professional reputation was pretty solid and his paintings and etchings continued to sell.

Considering the quality and innovation inherent in his mature work, Rembrandt would have been remembered as a unique and influential artist regardless of his last decade of production.  But, amazingly, during his last ten years, despite suffering so many hardships, Rembrandt painted his most important works, a series of reflective self-portraits which changed the way the individual was represented in art.  Stylistically, Rembrandt had developed a more painterly approach, color being applied to the canvas loosely with individual strokes asserting their autonomy, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to infer the transitions.  These works are masterful, representing an artist at the height of his powers.  Rembrandt has pared down his approach to the minimum, ignoring distracting detail, only devoting attention to those areas most necessary to convey meaning.  And light is critical in these works.  For Rembrandt, light is a liquid substance which he pours over his subjects.  Unlike his earlier self-portraits in which he strives to flaunt his wealth and success, these late works present the artist as he was.  These works are dark and gloomy, usually illuminated by a hazy, atmospheric glow.  The artist wears dark clothing which melds with the shadows that envelope his figure.  The mass of his kinky, graying hair swirls around his broad, swollen face like a cluster of storm clouds.  His face, lined and pitted with age, covets the faint, glimmering light.  These portraits present a disillusioned man, sober and stoic, suffering the outrages and debasements of old age yet retaining a piercing mental sharpness undiminished by infirmity.  But rather than express self pity, his eyes seem to project empathy with his viewers, the countless generations of future centuries who will reexperience this cycle of growth and decline.  These late self-portraits truly represent the peak of Rembrandt’s career.  Quite an achievement for an aging man who has experienced professional setbacks and crushing personal losses.  My supposition is that during his last years it was solely his art that sustained him.

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1659

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1660

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1660

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1669
In conclusion, I must ask myself what my abbreviated survey has taught me.  It would be easy and reasonable to state that the results are too diverse to draw any justifiable conclusions, but, on the contrary, there are a few broad observations to be gleaned from my efforts.  For instance, substance abuse severely diminishes an artist’s chances of having a productive and impressive late career.  And, it’s a dangerous though enticing game to reevaluate a life’s work in one’s golden years, thereafter choosing a totally new path to follow.  A long life doesn’t necessarily ordain decline, but extreme longevity almost inevitably leads to a diminishment in skills and focus.  Genetics definitely play a big role here.  And that, let’s face it, is just a crap shoot.  There are a few shining examples of artists whose career paths have remained stable in their later years or even followed a trajectory of continued ascent, but that, without a doubt, doesn’t appear to be the norm.  So, considering my intention to devote my latter years to fully maturing as an artist, I would have to say that the odds are definitely not in my favor.  But I really have no choice but to give it a serious try.  And should I fail the alternative is not that horrific.  With my AARP card securely tucked away in my wallet, I foresee a rosy future of discount matinee movie showings and early-bird blue-plate specials at the local Red Lobster.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  I’d be particularly interested to hear of any other artists who enjoyed extremely long careers and whose output seemed to peak at the end.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at gerardwickham@gmail.com.