By Jonathan Jones.
David Hockney says he’ll keep on painting into his 80s and may well have his greatest work ahead of him. “The Chinese have a saying,” the 78-year-old told the Radio Times . “Painting is an old man’s art. I told Lucian Freud that a long time ago. I think it is, actually. It means it’s an accumulation of things.”
Is Hockney right? Do painters get better with age? There is no question Freud got better as he matured . Was this the accumulation of skill? Partly, yet it also reflected a greater freedom. Freud braved more and dared more the older he got. His brushwork, which in his youth was careful and precise, became more suggestive and sensual. Early paintings by Freud such as Interior at Paddington (1951) are striking but his greatness lies on masterpieces such as his portraits of performance artist Leigh Bowery with their heroic admiration for the flesh.
Freud himself was well aware he was a late bloomer. He identified with the grandest of all art’s grand old men, Titian, whose late art he championed when there was a national appeal to keep Diana and Actaeon in the country. Titian lived to be about 86 and he painted to the end. His early paintings are perfect Renaissance works. But his late ones go into another realm of expressiveness and mystery, their colours ever more experimental and poetical. His unfinished masterpiece The Death of Actaeon has a romantic sorrow and inwardness that anticipates art movements yet to be imagined when he painted it.
So it is not simply that painters accumulate skill, but that the more skilled they become, the more risks they are ready to take. Endless practice does not make perfect – it makes for freedom. It would be wrong to dismiss younger painters for not being as good as the late Freud or Cy Twombly – another painter who improved with age.
Painters in their 40s or even 50s are just getting started. If they work hard at their craft they may have a period of genius to look forward to in old age. George Shaw’s current exhibition at the National Gallery, for example, is an impressive performance by an artist visibly leaning on the job , as all true painters must.
Yet it is not always true that artists get better as they age. In fact it can be a bit of a cliche. Some painters explode into genius when they are young and spent a lifetime failing to live up to their first brilliance. Jackson Pollock was in his 30s when he did his greatest paintings. He was dead at 44, but by then his talent had already started to decline. It is hard to imagine him as an old master.
Picasso changed art forever – for once the hype is true – when he was in his 20s. His youthful masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a hand grenade thrown into an art museum. He did not decline but carried on evolving creatively and transforming art several more times over – until he hit his old age. His late art is often compelling but it is simply not as powerful as the work he did before the second world war. Matisse , on the other hand, soared in his last creations of cut-up coloured papers, doing some of his best work in an entirely new medium.
This month we are getting two more chances to assess if age is good or bad for painters. Georgia O’Keeffe , soon to be shown at Tate Modern, lived a long time and kept working. Likewise Hockney himself, who at 78 is still busy and shortly to reveal his latest portraits at the Royal Academy. Is painting best left to the young or do oldies do it best? Let’s see.
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