Richard Lacayo’s “Last Light” looks at six artists through their ages
On the shelf
Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Age a Time of Triumph
By Richard Lacayo
Simon & Schuster: 384 pages, $35
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Type the phrase “rising young art star” into Google and you’ll get a mountain of results. Up-and-coming young art stars show in museums, up-and-coming young art stars move merch at Art Basel, up-and-coming young art stars sit in fashion magazines for diligently casual photos. We live in a society that values youth and the art world is no different. Conventional wisdom has it that an artist’s most innovative years are in the first half of their life.
Richard Lacayo might disagree. The latest book from the former Time Magazine art critic, Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph, out last fall, follows the work of artists who have pushed themselves further – and the limits of the artistic creation – to the end. And in some cases the importance of this late work was not understood for a generation or more.
Take Claude Monet, one of the artists featured in the book, who lived to the ripe old age of 86 (he died in 1926) and worked to the end of his life.
The French Impressionist’s late paintings came at a difficult time. He battled cataracts and was wracked with grief at the loss of his wife, Alice. Impressionism was out of fashion, and a younger generation of outspoken upstarts, including Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, were making noise with Cubism and other fresh concepts. Monet had come to represent the institution and make the avant-garde yawn.
It might not have seemed so at the time, but Monet still possessed “the boldness of a young man,” writes Lacayo. And “in his last decades it was associated with an old man’s attained mastery of his art, the result of Monet’s lifelong ‘research’ into light, color and the most effective ways of representing nature.”
Many of his late paintings—including a suite of eight large-scale waterlily paintings that have occupied their own galleries at the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris for nearly a century—broke with conventions of landscape depiction. Some eschew perspective and vanishing points, instead showing the artist focusing his gaze solely on the surface of his pond at Giverny – a view showing water without land to put it in context. As a result, some of these canvases can feel disorienting and wildly abstract.
“Monet entered – invented – an entirely new kind of pictorial space,” writes Lacayo. “The pond is at once a mirror showing us the sky and trees above, a membrane on which the water lilies ride, and a window down below, faintly alive with long strands of moss and swaying grass. Each brushstroke had to imply one or more of these interlocking dimensions.”
The paintings in the Orangery, which the artist bequeathed to the French nation after World War I, are of epic proportions – with huge canvases transformed into softly vibrant colors that reflect only the vaguest notion of form.
Reviews were mixed when it was unveiled in the 1920s, with some critics dismissing Monet’s preoccupation with color and light. But, as Lacayo notes, the water lily paintings regained prominence with the emergence of New York’s Abstract Expressionists, artists fascinated by the concept of “all-over” painting, in which the canvases were entirely covered with gestural brushstrokes.
In Monet’s work there were precedents for Jackson Pollock’s drips and Helen Frankenthaler’s casts – something that became evident when New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a major exhibition of Monet’s work in 1960. His late paintings made the rowdy New York School seem only a little less radical. As Andy Warhol once said on the subject, “It was like someone saying, ‘Look at Monet, that sweet old man. He did all these wild things before you were born.’”
“Last Light” also dedicates chapters to Titian, Francisco Goya, Henri Matisse, Edward Hopper and Louise Nevelson. The list is all western canon, unfortunately. (Lacayo drew on existing biographies, which is limiting.) But it offers a new perspective on artists you think you know well, as it reverses the narrative typical of many biographical texts and draws on the creative energies of them focused youth followed by the inevitable march toward mannerism and death.
Lacayo instead uses adolescence as a context for what would come later — and in some cases, that late exuberance is inspirational. “Do I have to stop work even if the quality degrades?” asks Matisse, upset that someone might challenge his devotion to his studio. “Each age has its own beauty.”
The book dedicates around 50 pages to each artist, and each of these chapters reads like an engaging mini-biography (you don’t need to know anything about the painters to appreciate them). In addition, they can be read from front to back or dipped in randomly; A generous helping of pictures, along with some beautiful endpapers, help illustrate Lacayo’s arguments.
What ultimately makes it worth reading is the writing: Lacayo eschews artificial language in favor of a scholarly but sympathetic tone. A Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries whose early years were marked by a lightness of subject, Goya grew darker and more mystical with age, reflecting on the barbarity of war – inspired by the Peninsular War, whose purges he survived . “Goya’s late work was an incendiary device that did not explode until it landed in the twentieth century,” writes Lacayo of the painter, “an era terrible enough to understand.”
In many ways, longevity – in life and in the studio – has enhanced posterity for these artists. Some of Goya’s most masterful and most remembered works – the grotesque Black Paintings, his horror etching series The Disasters of War – were created in the last two decades of his life.
“If he had died in his early sixties,” Lacayo writes, “he would still be remembered in his youth as an artist of charming genre scenes, in his maturity as a superb portraitist and printmaker, and as a gifted satirist, but not as one of the most influential.” artists of all times.”
The art industry fetishizes the young, but Last Light argues that writing off the old is unwise. Because life can be long, life after death even longer.
Among the drawings that Goya made in the last years of his life is a picture of a frail old man walking with the help of two canes. It is entitled “Aun aprendo” (I’m still learning).
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-02-10/monet-goya-and-matisse-innovated-til-the-end-last-light-tracks-the-feats-of-artists-in-old-age Richard Lacayo’s “Last Light” looks at six artists through their ages