Playing The Long Game
By Honor Bradbeer
I was pretty good at drawing as a kid. But I still remember the dawning realization that I’d become too old to be a child prodigy. I’d lacked the focus to take advantage of that tight time frame, and once it had passed me by, there was no aspiration with an equivalent sparkle on which to set my sights. Perhaps this is just one expression of the galling brevity of childhood itself.
It didn’t take too long to realize, however, that being considered amazing for one’s age is a glory that can’t last. So dawn goes down to day, wrote Robert Frost (at age 49). In fact it is possible that a fate even worse than reaching adulthood without having been a child prodigy, is to reach it after being one. Because, well… then what are you? An ex-child prodigy? I hate to imagine the internal and external pressure to maintain an astonishing level of excellence throughout the yawning expanse of adulthood, as your peers turn their attentions from Lego and fart jokes and start to be a threat.
It is tempting, but not always productive, to measure greatness on a timeline. We especially like deadlines.
German modernist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, died at age 31, from complications following the birth of her first child. Egon Schiele, whose angular, erotic figures are more famous than his name, died at 28 of Spanish flu. Jean-Michel Basqiuat’s wildly prodigious and dizzying career was truncated by his heroin overdose at 27, the famed stumbling-block age of the modern hero. Eva Hesse was 34, Georges Seurat was 31. Achievement is more easily measurable at an end-point. Artists practising in obscurity comfort one another with the wry observation that the best thing an artist can do to be recognized is die. The younger, the better.
But the art world, though notoriously vicious in some respects, is actually relatively kind to the aging artist.
While the hype around fresh young talent is undeniable, an artist may still be described as ‘emerging’ at 50. And, though there are some opportunities, prizes and grants still restricted to artists under a certain age, England’s famous Turner Prize last year scrapped its age limit of 50, acknowledging that “artists of any age can have breakthrough moments” (Zanzibar-born artist Lubaina Hamid went on to win the Turner that year, at age 63).
More generous grants and residencies may be all but unattainable to artists who don't have decades of experience. This is because the market appeal of an artwork is partly dependent on what its maker does before and after it is made. Investors buy art from living artists in the hope that the artist’s reputation will grow with time. The younger the artist, the greater the risk that they may burn out and be forgotten before they reach their potential. Grants are an investment in an artist’s practice itself, and its potential to enrich the cultural identity of its community.
For this reason, an artist can gain kudos for remaining active despite setbacks, fruitless periods and failures.
You are more likely to win a grant if you have applied for it unsuccessfully in the past. In theory, the more you lose, the greater your chance of winning.
And there is a palpable sense of community and peer respect (if not money and acclaim) the longer you keep at it. I rejoice inwardly when I come across new work from an old classmate. They’re still going! Bloody good on ‘em. Because it is seriously hard. There can be no money at all for years, if ever. There can be awful periods of artist’s block, or life circumstances that make practice near-impossible for long stretches of time. “In five years, half of you will have stopped making art,” an Art school lecturer warned us, “and after ten years, only a handful of you will still be in the game”. I have no idea where those statistics came from, but I took his message to heart: this is no sprint. Tenacity is key.
Something else happens when artists mature. The work begins to tell a fuller story. Their style can become a language that communicates the complexities and subtleties of lived experience, thought or feeling. It rides the changing tides of art movements and political change.
Early anxieties can be cast aside in later life, and the work can become something more pressing and real, made to satisfy its own maker above all others.
“So-called ‘late work’ is often the most radical and the most mysterious art of its time, quite at odds with contemporary voices, and we have come to relish it for just this intransigence and non-conformity,” writes Sam Smiles in The Guardian.
I have felt such a shift in my own practice. Until my daughter was born, my drawings were a response to my need to make art. I had to look for things to draw. Now it is more urgent, more directly functional, and less constrained. I make art to understand life, to cope with parenthood, to try to pin down its loveliness and grapple with what I can’t control. In some ways, motherhood has qualified me to be the artist I want to be.
So, when I think of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who saw so clearly, who was fearless enough to paint herself naked when no other woman had, whose portraits of the women and children around her are infused with a rare combination of bluntness and empathy, I long for her later work. How dearly I would like to see her motherhood, to see how it changed her, made her – if only it hadn’t unmade her. And I wonder what insight she would have brought to the two World Wars she never saw. How they would have transformed her vision. And what about when her eyesight dimmed with age, or her joints became stiff, or when her loves and peers began fading out around her? We need more artists to show us what aging is like from inside the mind.
I also wonder what Egon Schiele would have painted at my age, ten years on from his death. Were his gnarly, masturbating figures a product of youthful defiance? Or would his energetic explorations of sexuality endure and ripen?
Schiele’s painting ‘The Family’, depicting himself as a father, was left incomplete at his death, which adds poignance to its emotional power. Had he and his wife survived, they would have had their first child just months later. I wonder what that would that have done to Schiele, his much-painted wife, and his art. And if he had lived to be ninety, in 1980, how would he have seen the world into which I was born? How would he have seen—and known—himself?
Italian artist Carol Rama was born in 1918, the year Schiele died. Like his, her work also centred around sexuality and desire, and her wavering lines and spare composition were likely influenced by Schiele.
Rama lived to be 97, so the world has the opportunity to see how her vision matured, largely unrecognized, through her father’s suicide, through state censorship in fascist Italy; through the rise of feminism; and through the art movements of her time: expressionism, arte povera, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop, post-modernism…
Rama features in Anna Louise Sussman’s 2017 Artsy editorial “Why Old Women Have Replaced Young Men as the Art World’s Darlings”, and quotes Gallerie Lelong director, Mary Sabbatino: “Those years of relative obscurity often became a source of strength, allowing these women artists to hone their vision and sense of self-worth as they continued to work without the need for accolades”.
At 85, Rama won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale.
In 2017, art advisor and writer Marta Gnyp penned a paper entitled, “Miraculous Resurrections: The Contemporary Art Market of Older and Deceased Women Artists,” in which she lists more than a dozen older women artists who have recently shot to stellar heights, often from almost complete obscurity. She isolates several reasons for this explosion of interest, the first being “the market’s big appetite for new, whereby new doesn’t necessarily mean young”.
Then there is the scramble of Art Institutions and dealers to prove themselves “serious, socially engaged and politically correct” by including women and other previously-marginalised groups in their exhibition program. This conscientiousness has given rise to a growing appreciation of the unfamiliar, edgy and diverse art of ‘outsiders’. Add to that the charming narrative of the artist who has battled against all odds to pursue her work, or who waited till her children were grown before finally turning to her own creativity.
For a collector, to discover an overlooked artist is to unlock a treasure chest, as an artist who has late success is bound to have a rich back-catalogue, which may reach back through important art movements and be peer to well-worn and now unaffordable art heroes.
“The art world in general is quite shallow and quite lazy and doesn’t pay attention,” remarks gallery director Marian Ivan, “but if an artist is really good, eventually people will take notice.”
That fantasy of late discovery will do for me, for now.
Meanwhile, there is deep reward in the making, itself. In fact, that is the only reason anyone really does this. Recognition might put food on the table, but even in obscurity, the great prize is at hand. One smoky, soft charcoal line is sometimes better than lunch. A completed work can untangle an anxiety or fill me with warmth. I pack up the studio, turn up my collar to the night breeze, and head home to my family. And if I’ve worked a good day, then there is something new on the wall that the world has never, ever seen, and I stride through the night as though I am invincible.
Follow Honor on Instagram @honor_bradbeer and see more of her work at honorbradbeer.com