Are old artists “experimentalists”?

It wasn’t long after I began thinking about this blog that I discovered David Galenson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and his theory about great artists. According to Galenson, there are two kinds: conceptualists, who make radical innovations in their field at a very early age, and experimentalists, whose work develops slowly, even into old age, and over a long period of experimentation. His theory has been hailed as a ground breaking in the area of creativity.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the theory since I read about it, and to be honest, since I haven’t read the book where Galenson fully develops it, (Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity), I don’t feel justified in being too critical. On the one hand, I like Galenson’s thesis because it distinguishes creativity in old age as unique and important. On the other, it’s at least as difficult to make hard, fast rules about artists as about human beings generally.

The author’s two paradigms are Picasso and Cézanne. Since he is, professionally, a man whose scholarship is in numbers, his theory depends partly on statistics:

For painters, I looked at auction prices for their works and at art history textbooks and museum retrospectives. In almost all cases, the largest number of an artist’s paintings included in textbooks and retrospectives were painted at the same age that his or her works brought the highest prices at auction. For Cézanne, auction prices are highest for works made in the last year of his life, when he was 67. For Picasso, the highest prices were for works he did at age 26. The age at which Cezanne paintings were most likely to appear in textbooks was when he was 67. For Picasso, it was age 26. In the two artists’ most recent retrospectives, Cézanne’s best year was age 67. Picasso’s was 26. I’ve done this analysis for several hundred artists.

Since its inception, Galenson has modified his thesis. Exceptions to it are inevitable. As most critics point out when they first encounter it, Picasso was also an artist in his old age, and some of his greatest work was accomplished decades after his twenties.

Nevertheless, Cézanne is a good example of an artist whose greatest achievements came late in his life. He painted canvas after canvas of the same subject, neglecting to sign or date most of them because, for him, they weren’t finished. Looking at his paintings across the decades of his search for a way to convey his vision is fascinating. They change; they grow more complex and at the same time simpler: his understanding of color and how it can create form, his fascination with forms and shapes…. “I paint as I see,” he said, “and I have very strong feelings.” His work was rejected again and again by critics and the public. A few friends, a few other artists, his father (financially) stuck by him. He died from pneumonia at age 67 a week after he fainted working at his easel during a thunderstorm. It must have been deeply frustrating to him to realize he would never see his next painting, the one he was trying to make when he died.

Hamlet at Payannet, New Gardanne. Photo by mookiefl. Creative Commons.

It occurred to me that it might be presumptuous to slip into the mode of the experimentalist and try to see whether my peculiar creativity fits Galenson’s theory, but I thought I’d do it anyway. About two months before I started working on making a blog, I came to an impasse on a novel that had excited me until then because it was taking a different form than usual. But what happened next had nothing to do with that. It was a more familiar problem.

Card Players, c. 1890. Photo by Kamikazecactus.

In previous books, my characters had given me some guidance about where to go next – they knew even if I didn’t – but in this instance, a character I’d considered minor hi-jacked the plot. Since then, I’ve done something like what Cézanne did: I’ve fitted different pieces together different ways; I’ve watched in despair as one idea after another has come up empty. I’ve tried to let the important characters, including the miscreant, act one way and then another. I’ve tried to plunge more and more deeply into my intended theme – and other themes that have grown up like weeds as I wrote. I’ve read enough from other writers to know that this could go on for a very long time.

I desperately need long life.

As I continue these posts, I want to occasionally apply Galenson’s theory and see if it helps to see other old artists whole. So far, while it hasn’t helped me figure out where to go next in my particular book, it has made for a degree of encouragement.

Still Life with Apples. 1895-98. The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by griannan. Creative Commons.

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