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The Guardian, Wednesday 18 June 2008
Age shall not wither her
Some of the most exciting artists of our time are women over 60. Emine Saner asks Paula Rego, Gillian Ayres and others how age has affected their work, while guest editor Natalie d'Arbeloff explains what prompted her to commission this piece.
Guest editor Natalie d'Arbeloff writes ...
As far as I'm concerned, age goes like this: first, you're a baby. Then you're a kid, you're a kid, you're a kid. Then, suddenly, people are offering you their seat on the bus. How and why this happens is one of the mysteries of the universe which will never be solved unless science comes up with proof that age is an illusion, confirming what artists, female and male, have known all along.
From childhood onwards, I never doubted that I was an artist and always would be. Drawing, painting and making things gave me freedom to be simultaneously involved with and separate from the adult world. Choosing art as a career means that you have permission to be a child forever, a child with the benefit of experience but preferably without its burdens. Picasso said: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." For me, a major struggle has been to retain that childlike art-freedom while caught up in the various degrees of inner and outer upheaval that adult life brings.
Being an older-than-thou artist myself I thought it would be enlightening to interview some of the female creators who, like me, ignore the antiquated concept of retirement and believe that their best work is yet to come. In my own journey, obsessively documented in journals and - since my conversion to all things digital - a graphic novel-in-progress, I have always been absorbed by this question: why does life, specifically emotional life, so often interfere with the making of art, much more so for female artists than for our male counterparts? Admittedly, gender conditioning, child-rearing and/or mate-maintenance all play a part, but emotional involvement in itself undeniably soaks up art-making energy for many female artists, and can divert it. Of course this doesn't apply to all; I wanted to know how those who are the exception managed to focus their creative elan consistently and continuously throughout a long career.
Natalie d'Arbeloff is joint winner of our first Mary Stott prize. nataliedarbeloff.com
Age shall not wither her
Working in her studio for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, Paula Rego's creative drive is as intense as ever. "Even if I'm tired when I start working, by the end I have a lot of energy," she says. "It's very important for women to keep working." At the age of 73, she has never considered retiring. "Hopefully [my life] will end at my easel - I'll just fall down sideways." Then she adds mischievously: "Either that or in a drunken stupor."
Women artists have long laboured in the shadow of their male peers, and this has been particularly true of older women artists, whose later work has often been rendered invisible. When people refer to a creative energy that lasts over a lifetime, they tend to point to Picasso, who lived to 91, or Matisse, who lived to 84. Recently, though, a string of exhibitions has challenged the invisibility of older women artists. A Bridget Riley retrospective, which opened last week at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, reveals that the 77-year-old artist's recent work is just as vital as ever. And one of the thrills of the recent Louise Bourgeois retrospective at London's Tate Modern was in seeing her latest work in the context of her life as a whole. At 96, Bourgeois has carried on creating with a stark, uncowed intensity.
I spoke to a number of well-established women artists, and found that age certainly does not seem to have had a detrimental effect on their creativity - indeed, for many, their later years have been among their most productive. At 65, the painter and sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco, for instance, has no time for looking back. "When I look at the work I did, I think, 'God, I don't know how I did it'," she says. "It feels alien to me. I'm not interested [in the old work]. It belongs to the past and should stay there."
One of the dangers of ageing and continuing to work, she says, is "in repeating yourself and finding formulas. You have to make a conscious attempt not to do that ... People say my work is very sombre but I don't think so. They say, 'You must have had a terrible childhood,' but I had a wonderful childhood. With the difficulties of life, humans tend to be rather sad, but I have always refused to take that path. Notions of mortality come to us all, but when you are so engaged in creating something, you tend not to think about that." I wonder whether one of the benefits of getting older is being able to shrug off criticism, but Pacheco replies that she has "never really cared much what people think".
I ask the abstract painter Gillian Ayres, 78, how she feels about ageing. "Old age is a bastard really," she says, "but it's only when you see a photograph of yourself that it is the most awful thing. I don't feel any different to how I did when I was 15. I would like the time again - I would just paint." Does she feel she has achieved everything she can? "No, I don't know if an artist ever feels that, I don't think it's possible to in art. You can be pleased with your work, but I don't think you can judge how good you are." The physical restraints of older age have limited Ayres' work in that she is no longer climbing up ladders and throwing heavy cans of paint around, but her pictures still buzz with the same energy. She can't imagine retiring. "I wouldn't know what to do," she says. The suggestion that creativity diminishes with age is dismissed. "I hope it increases all one's life," she says. "One can never have enough. Your art does change over the years - you're still trying to find out things. I know that I won't be here in another 78 years. I think that does come with a slight pressure, but I just carry on. I've always just wanted to paint and work."
Many of those I speak to, women who have kept up their creative momentum through middle age and beyond, never had children or a traditional family. "I love solitude," says Pacheco. "I have wonderful friends and family, so I do go out, but the activity of making my work means I need to be on my own." She says she doesn't regret not having children and points out that women's position in society has changed so much now that her single lifestyle is not considered unusual. "In the past, it would have been difficult to live on my own. Society would have thought it very strange." How does she work? "I always have a deadline. At the minute, I'm trying to finish a large piece. The idea that you can get up in the morning and go to your studio and get on with your work is very idealistic. If you're as obsessed with your work as I am, you will work whenever you can to get it done." This often means toiling through the night, before moving on immediately to the next piece.
The Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, 89, whose recent London exhibition attracted enormous praise, has never married or had children. "My mother thought I would be very lucky if I had a husband and became a housewife and mother," says Lassnig. "When I was young, I was clever enough to know that if I got married or had children, I would be eaten. I would be sick if I couldn't paint, and I would be schizophrenic because I would have wanted to do both [paint and have a family]. So I renounced it. I don't understand young women who have a big family and want to make art. I don't think it is possible." Relationships were, however, important to Lassnig. "When you are young, you have time. You can waste your time with a lover," she says. Her lovers often served as her models - was this so she could be with them while continuing to work? "Yes," she says, laughing. Were they supportive? "Some were jealous a little bit, they didn't admire me so much. There was too much jealousy, although the jealousy came more from my colleagues, not my lovers."
Lassnig says she hopes her creativity "is growing all the time. For me, the most important thing is to have time to paint. When I'm getting inside the painting, it goes well and I'm very fast. The thinking [part of the process] is the whole of the rest of my life, but when I get to the work, it's very intensive but it doesn't last very long. I can't paint for longer than two hours - I get exhausted." She has always worked like this - her quick, powerful brushstrokes attest to it - although in more recent years, because of a bad back caused by years of running, it has become more difficult. "I have the same energy ... [but] I am sick very often, that is a pity." Does she feel that time is running out? "Of course. I've wasted my time when I wasn't painting."
Rego, meanwhile, bucks the idea that children are an obstacle for women artists, saying that one of the most productive periods of her career was when she was pregnant with the second of her three children. "I worked like a maniac, the work came and came," she says. "If you have a child, all you do is open your legs and it comes out. You don't need an idea behind it. To do a picture, you have to have an idea and then you struggle over it. Having children never got in the way of my work."
In Rego's lifetime the art establishment's attitude towards women artists has become more positive, although nobody would say that female artists are now on an equal footing with men. "When I first went to art school, I think the women there were picked on whether they would make good wives for the male artists, whether they would have an understanding of the troubled males," she says. "Women were good either for going to bed with or making good wives - particularly if they came with their own money and could support the men."
Living through a huge range of experiences has enabled Rego to produce some of her best work. Her paintings and drawings, often dark and disturbing - shot through with suppressed violence and turmoil - have dealt with subjects that include her time spent caring for her husband, the artist Victor Willing, who had multiple sclerosis, and her intense grief after his death in 1988. The arrival of her five granddaughters allowed her to revisit childhood stories and fairy tales, which found their way into her work.
Does she feel that she is running out of time, that she may not be able to create everything she would like? "That you do. I work harder now than ever. But you also have more desire to do it. You do it because that is what you do. I feel better when I draw. I haven't even begun to learn how to draw - I practise and practise. Eventually," says Rego, "I will be able to draw".