One thing that always captures my imagination is the last images produced by an artist. One never knows when one’s end will come, yet it is revealing to see the work produced by an artist in the last couple of years. There is almost a premonition of the end. I often think of Rembrandt’s late self portraits, especially the image of him in the dirty smock and white hat with his grey hair long and unkempt flowing from underneath (Self Portrait with Two Circles,1669, London). He looks frankly at himself. There are no illusions anymore. No whims or fancies to be sought after. There is only what is before him- a man. All that was in the periphery has slipped away and what remains is the essential- the elemental. One of Robert Creeley’s last poems, Here begins,
Up a hill and down again.
Around and in-
Out was what it was all about
but now it’s done.
At the end was the beginning,
just like it said or someone did.
Keep looking, keep looking,
Creeley’s emphatic advice “to keep looking, keep looking” seems to be at the heart of what attracts me to these works. Frans Hal’s late portraits, produced when he no longer had any money or loyal patrons, express his inherent desire to look squarely at his subject and peer into its deepest recesses. He no longer produced to receive favors and fame but painted because he had to- to verify his existence and those around him. Robert Henri’s late portraits of children are striking for their minimalism. He strives to paint only as long as it takes to capture the essence and character of the individual. There is no fancy brush work, no attempt to finish. The child in his or her simplicity rises up from the encounter and speaks quietly and beautifully about the meaning of existence and the nature of being. Poetry that is profound, simple and essential.
There is a deep sense of responsibility in these late works. A responsibility to the unique vision that had been granted to each artist. Sometimes there is regret too. And this itself adds to the profoundness that we feel before these works. In a sense we identify with the artist and recognize our similarities and our frailties as part of our shared human nature. Manet’s late small paintings of flowers produced when he could no longer get out of bed speak of a simple desire to see, to look and to look again. A desire to take all that beauty with him- to embrace it and never let it go.
We’d set off into the woods
and would climb trees there
and throw things, shouting
at one another, great shrieking
cries I remember- or would, if
I dreamt- in dreams. In dreams,
the poet wrote, begin responsibilities.
I thought that was like going to
some wondrous place and all was
waiting there just for you to come
and do what had to be done.
(Robert Creeley,On Earth, 2005)