Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Late work

In an excellent Guardian article from earlier in the week, curator Sam Smiles explored the phenomenon of artists' late work. He noted that until the early twentieth century late work was routinely considered inferior. He argues that this view has changed to the extent that today late work is often considered profound per se:

"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?"
In the reading I did on the artists whose work I saw during my sabbatical art pilgrimage, I found the reverse to be the case. The speed with which new movements formed within modernism meant that artists engaging with church commissions in their later career could easily be portrayed as no longer being cutting edge and as having declined in the quality of their work. The reputations of many of those who were commissioned by the Church in the twentieth century (e.g. Jean Bazaine, Maurice Denis, Albert Gleizes, Jean Lurçat, Alfred Manessier, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Georges Rouault, Gino Severini) have declined following their deaths. The same is likely to be so for those receiving contemporary commissions (i.e. Brian Clarke, Stephen Cox, Tracey Emin, Christopher Le Brun, Adrian Wisniewski). The pace with which modern art moved from one movement to next in the twentieth century quickly and, often unfairly, condemned as passé what had previously been avant garde.

Fashions and reputations in the art world (as elsewhere) change considerably with time. In their own day and time Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were considered unassailable as the giants of twentieth century art while now, in terms of continuing influence on contemporary artists, Marcel Duchamp is generally considered to be the most influential twentieth century artist. Lurçat’s tapestry provides the central focus for the Church at Assy, where those artists commissioned were considered current masters, but his reputation has not been sustained into the current day.

The Church cannot, and probably should not, seek to keep up with the fickle nature of fashion and instead should value both artists with significant mainstream reputations wishing to receive occasional commissions plus artists with less significant mainstream reputations who receive commissions which form a more significant part of their practice. Commissions should be judged on their own merits and not on the reputation of the artist(s) involved. Reputations change over time meaning that those who are viewed as contemporary ‘masters’ may not be considered as significant by future generations while artists who do not have national or international reputations in their day may nevertheless produce high quality and/or visionary work. 

As Smiles makes clear in his article, the quality of work produced by artists does not in any sense necessarily diminish with age or a change of style (or even when Church commissions are accepted), although the reputation of an artist or the perception as to whether they are or are not cutting edge may be affected by such considerations. It may, however, be that age causes some artists to think more deeply about legacy and reputation in some cases making them more open to commissions which would endure in public settings, such as the opportunities provided through church commissions, than would be the case earlier in their career. 


Leonard Cohen - Almost Like The Blues.

No comments: