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Age in the Arts

Thinking about the ever-increasing rise of social media platforms being used to both self-promote and promote the younger generation of artists, I was struck by a significant question: What about those older artists born way before the Internet boom of the early nineties? How do they figure into the equation? This line of enquiry led me to another, broader, question: What’s it like to be an artist in your seventies, your eighties, even your nineties? To help answer this question, I also enlisted help from a friend of mine who actually is an elderly artist: Anthony Eyton, 93, one of the oldest appointed Royal Academicians at the Royal Academy of the Arts.

Ageism

Examining the prevailing “youth trend” in contemporary art, the Guardian’s Ana Finel Honigman argued that the prevalence of online media platforms being used as a way of promoting younger artists was largely to account for this bias towards the younger generation, noting that this method of self-marketing would in turn lead to the art world becoming over-saturated with types of work that represented only one given demographic. Honigman stated this would lead to “audiences being bombarded with professional degree shows by hordes of hungry, hormonal adolescents pumped up on art school jargon who lack the necessary life experience to produce truly fresh ideas.” A little unfair perhaps, this statement, but embedded with a nugget of truth nonetheless – for who can deny that great art has always come about from some form of profound lived experience?

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Practicalities

Aside from assuming that the entire art world is actively hostile to the older generation, there’s another important element we need to consider here: Are there also physical determinants that might hinder the careers of older artists?

A notable example of this can be found in Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1971, O’Keefe’s deteriorating eyesight, due to macular degeneration, caused her to lose all central vision and put an end to her painting. However, after memorably declaring: “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there”, O’Keeffe then began experimenting with sculpture, continuing on into her 96th year, two years before her eventual death at 98.

I asked Anthony about how his own working practices have changed since he was younger. “I’m blessed with good health,” he told me, “I can no longer walk to the motif, so I do tend to stay inside. But basically… the palette’s brighter; I’m more courageous, not so timid, more ambitious now.”

“It may be a delusion,” he added, “but you get more single-minded in old age. Because there are less distractions, you focus more. For myself, I’m coming up ninety-four, so I’m lucky to have the good health to be able to realise what my dreams might be in a more potent way.”

Galvanisation

There’s numerous other instances of this will to create triumphing over physical restrictions: there’s Monet (again suffering from failing eyesight) resolutely painting his famed Water Lilies, post-cataract surgery; and then there’s Matisse, his abdominal cancer being operated on in 1941, an operation that left him wheelchair-bound at the age of 71, forcing him to switch from the physically taxing mediums of painting and sculpture to the less strenuous creation of paper cut-outs, or découpage (arguably the most well-known of Matisse’s work).

It’s also interesting to note, as Anthony implied, that many famous artists have created some of their most important works during their twilight years: E.g. Titian’s series of Ovid-inspired “poesie” works created in 1553-1562; Picasso’s later works – 1968-1971 – at the time dismissed as the pornographic fantasies of a dirty old man or the work of an artist well past his prime, were later posthumously considered by the critical community to prefigure Neo-Expressionism. This phenomenon is explored in much greater detail in Thomas Dormandy’s book, Old Masters: Great Artists in Old Age.

"DOMESTIC SCENE LOS ANGELES" 1963 OIL ON CANVAS 60 X 60" © DAVID HOCKNEY

Domestic Scene, Los Angeles
1963
Oil paint on canvas
1530 x 1530 mm
Private collection
© David Hockney

Technology

Artists have always been gifted at utilising modern developments to advance their craft, and while there’s plenty of “contemporary” artists (i.e. under 40) recognised as engaging with modern technological developments to create their work, how does this apply to the older generation?

The most conspicuous example of this is Yorkshire maestro and all-round polymath, David Hockney. Arguably Britain’s most celebrated living artist, the 79-year old is currently exhibiting at Tate Britain, who recently stated that they foresee this retrospective as being one of the most visited exhibitions in their entire history. The retrospective features an extensive array of Hockney’s artwork, appearing chronologically from his early Sixties student paintings all the way through to his iPad drawings and colourfully explosive later works. While these later works have generally been dismissed by the critical establishment as “not much more than curiosities”, or as having not accomplished much “that couldn’t have been achieved with conventional media”, nonetheless they show a remarkable intuition for keeping up with, and engaging with, the contemporary landscape, highlighting Hockney as one of the earlier adoptees of this digital technology and its application to the arts.

Conclusion

The term “Contemporary art” and all its associated adjectives – i.e. “emerging”, “modern”, “latest”, “innovative” etc. – are generally used in conjunction with the description of young artists. In my opinion, it’s this commonplace attitude, this readiness to exult youth and youthfulness as the essential gauge for talent, which means that we allow others to go unrecognised for their achievements. This isn’t to say that I believe in devaluing what younger artists have to offer, but rather that I would like to believe that as a civilised, ostensibly non-discriminatory society, we should also strive to support those artists at the other side of the age spectrum, the side where life experience and inexhaustible commitment to their craft play an integral role in forming these artists and their work.

Bearing this in mind, I asked Anthony whether he had any advice for older artists. “Stick to your guns,” he told me. “Don’t despair; you must express yourself, continue with your creativity in some way or other… Just keep alive, if you can.” He added, laughing. “Keep alive.”

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Anthony Eyton’s exhibition, Substance & Light, is showing at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery from 6th May – 5th July. He is also exhibiting at the RA’s 2017 Summer Exhibition from the 13th June – 20th August. The Hockney Retrospective is now showing at the Tate Britain until the 29th May.

Words and images by Alun Evans (unless stated otherwise)
Part of the East Street Arts Guest Writer Project #ESAGWP