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Yet the idea that late works are especially significant would have astonished our forebears. Less than 200 years ago, late-life creativity was almost a contradiction in terms. The traditional view was of a three-stage development from apprenticeship to mastery and then to creative decline - if the artist managed to survive into old age.
Artists weren't the only ones whose last works were deemed to be inevitably inferior. It was accepted as a universal phenomenon, and in the 19th century the new science of statistics seemed to confirm this story of peak and decline.
It was not until the early decades of the 20th century that late-life creativity in the arts began to be celebrated routinely, but the first stirrings of this idea began in the middle of the 19th century.
Burckhardt wrote his book at a time when two of the most influential figures of the age had thrown down a major challenge to the critics. The last works of
By 1880 a music critic could refer to "the so-called 'late
Goethe's last works were also highly admired as an example of radical invention in old age, leading to the formal identification of old-age style (Altersstil) as a specific aesthetic phenomenon. By the end of the 19th century "late work", "late style" and "old-age style" began to establish themselves within the lexicon.
The phrase "the late work" is now routinely applied to the final phase of many artists' careers, from
It is often proposed that the proximity of death stimulates artists to turn inwards and concentrate on the essence of their practice at the expense of public understanding. Late works are often radical works, incomprehensible as far as contemporary opinion is concerned. Is the late work a crowning finale to a life's work, a creative last will and testament for the benefit of subsequent generations?
Such thinking flatters us moderns, who see merit where the artist's critics saw decline, who can value what may have been scorned, and for that very reason we should guard against it. Just as importantly, any emphasis on the presumed universal qualities of late style means setting aside the precise situation in which the artist was working. It proposes that the artist in question is better understood outside society, withdrawing from it to confront the eternal questions, or even out of time, producing work that makes sense only in the context of much more recent developments. Yet regarding Turner, say, as a modernist prophet robs his art of its complex relationship to Victorian England.
And then there's the problem with the term itself. "The late work" seems entirely innocuous, yet once one begins to question how it's used, let alone what it actually means, problems begin to multiply. How long is a late period? The last 10 years of a career? The last five? It seems to be an entirely arbitrary decision. It can't be attributed simply on the basis of age, either, for not every elderly artist is considered to have produced distinctive late works. And because people's experience of old age is highly varied, age itself tells you nothing about an artist's work.
Of course there are some artists whose final works were clearly affected by an infirmity associated with ageing (
Finally, how does age enter the reckoning for the late works of those who died relatively young and ended their creative careers in their 30s (
Is style the answer, then? What if an artist's final manner of working
differs significantly from the work that preceded it? This seems like the best solution but it actually narrows the field of potential candidates for late work very severely. Artists
associated with decisive breaks do
exist - for example
Let us return to where we started:
Malevich. Here are four artists, working in very different personal and historical circumstances and in very different stylistic idioms. As their exhibitions show, it is more informative and illuminating to respect the precise situation in which each body of work was made.
Likewise, rather than assuming that late works, by their very nature, are testaments left behind for posterity to decipher, we can demystify them by seeing them simply as the latest phase in a development that was only brought to a close by the artist's death.
Undiminished . . . (clockwise from main image) Turner's War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet;
self portrait by Rembrandt completed when he was 63;
and the Mermaid by
as Turner in
new biopic of
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