Some time ago I ran across an article from 1972 on the style characteristic of elderly artists. The author, Kenneth Clark finds in their works several common features, which he identified as follows:
“Now let me try to summarise the characteristics of the old-age style as they appear, with remarkable consistency, in the work of the greatest painters and sculptors. A sense of isolation, a feeling of holy rage, developing into what I have called transcendental pessimism; a mistrust of reason, a belief in instinct. And in a few rare instances the old-age myth of classical antiquity–the feeling that the crimes and follies of mankind must be accepted with resignation. All this is revealed by the imagery of old men’s pictures, and to some extent by the treatment. If we consider old-age art from a more narrowly stylistic point of view, we find a retreat from realism, an impatience with established technique and a craving for complete unity of treatment, as if the picture were an organism in which every member shared in the life of the whole.”
Clark describes numerous works that display these features. Here is one such piece, Michelangelo’s “The Conversion of Saul.” The scene is tumultuous; Saul seems no longer aware of the people who surround him, but instead is held in thrall by the fearsome power of the risen Christ:
Here is another example, Titian’s “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence.” Like Paul, St. Lawrence is surrounded by people yet no longer with them. He has been transported by power from above which has given sight to him just as it gave blindness to Paul:
Here is Rembrandt’s “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civitas,” as reworked by the artist after it was returned to him by the city fathers of Amsterdam, who had commissioned the work but were dissatisfied with it. Rembrandt ignored their request to rework it to their specifications, instead modifying it to fit his vision.
As I looked at these works and several others, I wasn’t persuaded that pessimism is at the heart of the old age style. I see in them a sense that most human projects are insignificant, perhaps even fatuous, but that just makes the contrast with the transcendent more stark. There may be skepticism that human plans will succeed, but that’s not the same as thinking that everything bodes ill. There seems to be hope not because of human efforts, but in spite of them.
Clark’s essay reminded me of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Rohr contrasts spirituality in the first and second halves of life. First-half spirituality is ego-driven, aimed at making ourselves feel special, carving out a place where we belong and helping us achieve some success there. The focus is on “order, control, safety, pleasure, and certitude.” Second-half spirituality entails leaving that place of safety at God’s behest. We usually take that step not because we want to but because we are forced to when we encounter failure, loss, or disappointment. Away from what is familiar and reassuring, we stumble along the path that leads us to the truth about ourselves and the world. Don’t these late-life works of art help us see such unconventional, discomforting truths?
Rohr says the following:
“We are both driven and called forward by a kind of deep homesickness, it seems. There is an inherent and desirous dissatisfaction that both sends and draws us forward, and it comes from our original and radical union with God.”
Perhaps, rather than pessimism, the old age style is characterized by this dissatisfaction with what our days consist of. The elderly artist is homesick, tired of the ephemera of life. He or she is drawn forward, painting or sculpting or drawing not for others but to express a longing that cannot be consoled. Such dissatisfaction evokes our own longing, which is an uncomfortable blessing for us. I’m thankful for art that prompts me to yearn for that which lies beyond the realm of sight.