The passion of the old artist in sickness

No matter how I cheer on the older artist, it is also true that old age usually, eventually, means physical impairment. Not the end of life or a life in art. But bad things happen. That’s just the way it is.

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was one of the most influential dancers and  choreographers of the 20th century. She has been compared to Stravinsky in music, Picasso in the visual arts and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture. But there is no other art form in which physical good health is so important—the body is the dancer’s tool in trade. Most dancers, like most athletes, retire at a relatively early age. But Graham fought retirement despite an ever-louder disparaging clamor from critics. By the late 1960s, in despair because of her declining body, she began to drink. When she gave her last performance at 76, she sank into a deep depression:

It wasn’t until years after I had relinquished a ballet that I could bear to watch someone else dance it. I believe in never looking back, never indulging in nostalgia, or reminiscing. Yet how can you avoid it when you look on stage and see a dancer made up to look as you did thirty years ago, dancing a ballet you created with someone you were then deeply in love with, your husband? I think that is a circle of hell Dante omitted.

Martha Graham, Paul R. Meltsner, Oil on canvas, 1938. Photo by cliff1066™ Creative Commons.

[When I stopped dancing] I lost my will to live. I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded. My face was ruined, and people say I looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in a coma.

But Martha Graham came back. She stopped drinking and continued choreographing dances—ten more complete ballets, and as many revivals. It wasn’t until  the age of 96, in the midst of work on still one more, that she died of pneumonia.

Why did she come back? Why did choreography suffice when before nothing but dancing would? I don’t know. But I think there’s a clue in her description of creativity in dance in a letter to her friend Agnes DeMille (also a long-lived and important woman choreographer):

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost, the world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased…there is no satisfaction whatever at any time.

There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the rest.

I can’t say it better than she did. “Keep the channel open” to the force, the quickening.” You have no choice. You do it because you must.

Another example:
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was one of the great painters of the 20th century, but in his early eighties he suffered from heart and lung disease, in addition to gastrointestinal problems, leaving him exhausted and alternately wheelchair-bound or bedridden. He was no longer physically able to paint the way he had, but while his physical energy may have been nearly depleted, his creative energy surged and he moved from canvas to cutouts, experimenting with color and in the process changing the way we see color forever.

Matisse cutouts. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo by Su-lin. Creative Commons.

There’s a marvelous photograph in Gene D. Cohen’s The Creative Age (pg. 199) of Matisse in bed using a long pole with some kind of marker on its end and drawing on his bedroom walls. I could copy it, but I’d undoubtedly be infringing on some kind of copyright law, so I ask you instead to imagine the man in this portrait coloring on his wall.

Henri Matisse. 1933 May 20. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten

Perhaps the passionate creativity of the old can be summed up in this quotation:

The dry branch burns more fiercely than the green.

– American poet Elder Olson (in his mid seventies)

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2 thoughts on “The passion of the old artist in sickness

  1. I remember having been replaced in an original ballet with The Young Australian Ballet Company, after being hospitalised for a month, and convalescing for a second one. I had only been off school for six weeks, but took an extra two from dancing. I went to a performance of the Company, and the pain of seeing someone else dancing my role, was completely crushing. My mother’s helpful remark about “everyone being replaceable”, did absolutely no good at all. If that role was to be danced, it should only have been by me. That was the (very unreasonable) way I felt. When you dance an original role, you feel as if you “own” it. It is yours. It is like seeing someone pawing over your favourite, memory-filled, and possibly very delicate clothes or possessions with filthy hands. Particularly, when you know that the person who is replacing you, is not performing the role as well as you would have done. I have not had to suffer through the same thing as an actress, but I imagine that I would have felt the same way. It is really devastating. As if part of your soul has been torn away.

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