Ways of being an old painter

At the National Portrait Gallery, in London, there is a photograph of two painters by David Dawson. Lucian Freud stands In the doorway of his studio, looking like Dr Jekyll moments after freeing himself from Mr Hyde: white shirt, white apron, scarf knotted about his neck. David Hockney sits beside an easel, surrounded by rags in the paint-flecked studio: chinos, check jacket and blue polo shirt.

Both men face the camera. Hockney half-smiles. Freud does not. This is his domain. On the easel is his portrait of Hockney, a bigger than life-size head, rounder and fuller. Not smiling.

In spring 2012 London saw new exhibitions by both of these admired artists. Freud, born in 1922, had died only a few months earlier, in July 2011. The National Portrait Gallery’s retrospective spanned his career and had an inescapable valedictory tone.

The Hockney exhibition, by contrast, was a huge display of recent work at the Royal Academy – thirteen rooms bursting with big, intensely coloured landscapes, mostly of Yorkshire and some done on an iPad. At 75, Hockney gives every indication of exuberant old age – Matisse, perhaps, to Freud’s Rembrandt.

 Going from one exhibition to the other, the contrasts are obvious. The first, a life’s work; the second, a few years’ only. Here, faces, people and animals; there unpeopled landscapes (with one strange exception, inspired by Claude Lorrain). Here a severely restricted palette; there, vibrant, joyful tones.

Where the painters unite – at least in their presentation by these London institutions – is in the power they derive from their art, undiminished as age gathers. Indeed, that power seems the greater by contrast with what we know and expect of old age.

Both exhibitions have been hugely popular. Hockney especially has sold so well that the Royal Academy is opening through the evening to allow more people to see the work. There are many reasons for that public appreciation, but one may be the artists’ evident refusal to ‘go gentle into that good night’.

Neither rages – that poem was written by a young man – perhaps because they have more interesting, though very different, things still to express.

Why write about people’s life in the arts?

Where we Dream is now with the designer. Before it went, I asked a few friends who work in the arts and academia to read the text. Although drafts had been discussed with members of WBOS – that’s implicit in co-production – I wanted to see how someone with a professional interest but no previous knowledge might respond to the book.

Happily, the feedback has been good, but one person asked some questions that made me aware of how normative are the arts world’s current ways of thinking, and by extension of writing, about itself. In particular, she asked who had ‘commissioned the research and for what purpose?’. It is a perfectly reasonable question, given the research I’ve published over the years. At the same time, it implies that research, bought by an external body for purposes of its own, is the normal reason for writing about cultural life.
‘The power of science is to transform the world in ways that not even scientists can predict. The power of the humanities – of the one and only culture – is to interpret the world in ways that anybody can appreciate.’
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 2007, p.117

As evaluation has become important for the public arts sector, and publication has diminished in difficulty and cost, there has been an explosion of reports about the arts. Public bodies, charitable foundations and arts organisations publish most of it themselves. Because it is not peer-reviewed (a concept whose value does not preclude questions about its legitimacy) academia defines it as ‘grey literature’, which makes it sound like it is written by ringwraiths.

All that presents problems of its own but my immediate concern is that arts professionals may now believe that the research model is the only valid way to think or write about arts practice. Continue reading “Why write about people’s life in the arts?”

Representing people

Work on the portraits for Winter Fires continues, alongside the meetings and conversations with older artists. The aim is to produce a conscious image of an individual that will work with the text to offer a richer understanding of the experiences of older artists. Here are a couple of the early stage sketches that give some sense of what is emerging.

It’s proving to be a fascinating – and slightly scary – process. The initial image is chosen from a series of portrait photographs that I make with the person at the end of our conversation. Where and how they want to be seen is up to them, though I have suggestions. Our conversation is very present and influential as we create an image.

The second dialogue is with Mik Godley, who is working from those photographs to produce images made on an iPad, using the Brushes application. (It’s difficult to call them either paintings or drawings since, although the result can look like either, the technique is completely different.) In those conversations, we’ve been feeling our way towards finished works that stand alone but also relate to what is emerging from my meetings.

Sometimes the results are startling and unexpected in their recreation of the original image but their reinvention is always enlightening, inviting me to think again. The circle will be completed when I take the portraits back to the people themselves: I have no idea how they will feel about them, but I’m hopeful they’ll value the thought that’s gone into them.

Why go to all this trouble? The first reason is that a non-verbal exploration of the issues is integral to the Regular Marvels idea. I believe that the interaction of two ways of knowing – in this case text and paintings – will produce greater insight than either of them could do alone.

But the more I read publications on ‘the arts and older people’ the more uncomfortable I am with the portrayal of their subjects. Individually, many of the images are fine, but cumulatively they give an impression of passivity, dependence and – most of all – age. It is no doubt unintentional, but age seems to become the subject of many of these photographs, especially those that show workshop activities.

Whatever else we may or may not achieve in this three-corned process of image making, Mik’s final work is not about age. His portraits are primarily character studies in which age is no more important than any other truth about a person. Which is as it should be.