If we are to define our time as a race demanding perfection, we can also ask - are images of aging in art truly revolutionary works? The marks that time leaves on our bodies many hide from view. Yet, for a number of artists, the process of aging, the process of change, and the demand to be the most authentic one can be, stand at the core of their creativity. Can we call this style of photographs, drawings, or painting as aging art?
In art history, the depiction of an old person often served as an allegorical representation of time, transience, and mortality. In some cases, a portrait of an old man stood as a symbol of nobility and wisdom. When we speak about aging in art, we are made aware of crucial issues concerning, not only the question of the body or of identity, but also of gender and politics. Why is the aging body in most cases hidden from view, and why do most of us fear old age as a symbol of being invisible? What images and ideas do those few who dare to shake the taboo of aging art offer?
The obsession with the human form, from the idealized images of antiquity to the fragmented subject of the post-war period, has followed creatives for centuries. During the 60s and the 70s the body of the artist received a fresh definition. It became an original surface and a vehicle for art production that pushed, not only the boundaries of the body but of art’s definition. The major body art artists, such as Marina Abramovic and Ulay, touched the issues concerning vulnerability and identity and often took their bodies to their limits. The naked male and the naked female body performed violent actions questioning relevant issues of the era. Major change of the way the female nude or the female body were defined was a major concern for the feminist art movement and major feminist artists which shifted the power of the male gaze by offering a completely female perspective.
Presently, the aged body of the artistic subject stands as the evidence of the passing time. The old body is typically dreaded by the mainstream culture, while for various contemporary creatives it presents an inspiration for their work. The gray hair, sagging skin, wrinkles, lines, scars, and spots, all the complex effects on the body and the soul are documented by these authors. In doing so, they not only explore the process of aging but also challenge the dominant and often negative perception of it.
Displaying the paintings or photographs which display their own aging body or the images of elderly people publicly, authors such as Joan Semmel, bravely step forward and face the shared fear of our passing physicality. Semmel is one of many authors who never hid away from the graphic scrutiny of her own body. At the age of 82, her paintings depict herself as aging and nude. Considering her latest pieces as some of her most powerful work to date, Semmel comments that they are images which offer the real life, the natural evolution of the person which needs to be presented without any 'face-lifts'. Sharing the documentation of her own body, the photographs of Marna Clarke embrace the process of aging gracefully. Her series of documentary photography Time As We Know It, displays images of her feet, her hand across her chest, or her embrace with her partner. As much as the project was concerned with documenting the changes of her own body, it also offered a possibility to stop the time from passing to the artist. “Creativity keeps me busy, alive and vibrant. Thoughts of growing old recede as I immerse myself in my work.”
Through various media, but mostly through photography, creatives attempt to display that aging is not something to be feared. Photographers James Hosking and Andi Schreiber break the idea that after a certain age one is invisible, and produce images which not only bring some of the most beautiful portraits to light, but also convey a deeper message of freedom and of wisdom that the old age brings.
The process of accepting the passing of time and of our own mortality in the contemporary world is a heavy task. As much as the beautiful hyperrealistic portraits by Antonio Finelli praise the old skin as the best possible document to all of the life's lessons, we are still bombarded with idealized images of the unattainable bodily image. In this arena, there are also authors who will attempt to break the system from within. Such is the case with the celebrated photographer Mickalene Thomas. Her images not only spark a dialogue between black history, women and transformation, but also are an homage to her mother. To Thomas, her mother is her muse and she often refers to her struggles of coming to terms with the failure of her body which did not break her spirit.
In the end, most images that present the evidence of the time passing or of the failure of our bodies convey the messages of acceptance and of self-praise. As Betty Friedan famously said: Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength”, and the creatives featured in this article for sure speak this as the only truth.
Editors’ Tip: The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging
In this anthology, Wayne Booth has selected, and has been inspired by, the works of some of our greatest writers - Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Walt Whitman, and many more - on the art of growing older. Profound, witty, shrewd, compassionate, but never sentimental, he deals candidly with losses, fears, and lamentations, but then dwells on not just the consolations but the reasons for celebration. This book uses the words of the greatest writers to display that the very act of making art is in itself a victory over time.
Culled chiefly from great literary works, this unusual compendium of prose and poetry . . . highlights the physical and emotional aspects of aging. . . The thoughtful commentary with which Booth connects the selections reminds readers that physical decay and fear of death are conditions common to us all. . . Provocative."—Publishers Weekly
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: James Hosking - Olivia. Image via pinterest.com; Marna Clarke - Feet, detail. Image via marnaclarke.com; Andi Schreiber - Artwork. Image via andischreiber.com.