Life is full of surprises and even revelations, and I’ve received several of those lately. Instead of writing a long blog about any one of them, I’m going to tell you who, what and where and fill it all in with a few quotations.
The first is an article about Lucian Freud, someone I’ve never known much about. I was aware he died recently, and as is the case with far too many of this world’s wonders, it took the man’s death to bring him to my notice. There’s a terrific article in the February Vanity Fair about Freud. Written by David Kamp, it’s worth reading from top to bottom, but I’d like to quote just a little from the beginning because it has to do with an artist in old age, which is what this blog is supposed to be about—at least occasionally!
Lucian Freud’s final portrait is of a naked man and a dog. It is unfinished but otherwise betrays no sign of the agedness of its creator, who died last July 20, halfway through his 89th year. The scale is big, a square canvas of about five feet by five feet, and the brushwork is as sure and layered as in any painting he had ever done—smooth and free around the man’s shoulders, crusty and impastoed along the arms. The palette is Caucasian-fleshy from afar but remarkably varied and intricate up close: purples and greens in the man’s legs, vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits.
For the last 57 years of his life, Freud painted standing up rather than sitting down; the physical restrictions of seated painting, he said, had begun getting him “more and more agitated” in the 1950s, so he kicked the chair away. Painting on his feet required extraordinary stamina, given Freud’s self-imposed work schedule: a morning session with one model, an afternoon break, and an evening session with another model, seven days a week, all year round. What’s more, these sessions had a tendency to stretch on: a deliberate worker, Freud took 6, 12, 18 months or longer to complete a painting, marathoning into the night if the mood struck. But he had stamina in spades. Painting was his workout; he took no other exercise, and yet photographs of him working shirtless in 2005, when he was 82, show him to be lean and all sinew, a jockey-size Iggy Pop.
But by June 2011, Freud recognized that his body was finally failing him, and that he had only so many brushstrokes left. The naked man in the portrait was completed, but the dog, a tan-and-white whippet, would never get its hind legs. Freud prioritized its head and face, adding a little dart of terre verte (“green earth”) mixed with umber to depict the tip of the animal’s pricked-up right ear. In early July, Freud was addressing the painting’s foreground: the folds and ripples in the sheet that covered the low platform upon which his two models sprawled. Here and there, as his energy permitted, he applied quick strokes of flake white, a thick, lead-heavy paint, to the lower part of the canvas.
That was as far as he got. Able to stand no longer, he at last retired to his bedroom, one floor up from the studio he kept in his Georgian town house in West London. As he lay in bed, friends and family gathered to pay their respects. There were many visitors from both categories. Freud had an otherworldly magnetism that his intimates struggle to put into words. Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, once ascribed to him “a sort of starry quality … an extraordinary sort of mercurial thing. He’s like something not quite like a human being, more like a will-o’-the-wisp.” Over the course of his life he fathered 14 acknowledged children with six women. Among his nine daughters are the fashion designer Bella Freud and the novelist Esther Freud. Two weeks into their bedside vigil, he was gone.
Freud simply did great work as an old man, some of his greatest. “In a sense, I think he knew this was his last big push at making some remarkable works. I could just see that he was really ambitious, pushing as hard as he could,” says the naked man in that final painting, David Dawson, the artist’s longtime assistant and the owner of Eli, the whippet star of several late paintings. ….
This overdrive work ethic was at once an acknowledgment of pending mortality and a hedge against it. Dawson marvels at what his boss managed to achieve. “The sheer volume, the scale,” he says. “He never rushed the work. But, my God, one great painting after another came out. He felt he could do it and he was able to. And this was his last chance.”
My next discovery, comes from the January 27 issue of the Wall Street Journal. where Dalibor Rohac writes about Deidre McCloskey, an economist. Why have I never heard of her? McCloskey is out to bring moral values back to the history and practice of economics. Apparently, she’s funny and charismatic, as well as brilliant. She’s also someone who changed her gender mid-career, which may not be relevant to her economic philosophy, but somehow makes her very, very human.
In 2006, Ms. McCloskey published a 600-page book, “Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.” In a meticulously documented volume, drawing from a range of philosophical traditions, she asks whether one can participate fully in the modern capitalist economy and still be a moral person. Ms. McCloskey is a free marketeer and used to be a close personal friend of Milton Friedman, as she eagerly points out. Her answer is therefore an emphatic yes. It would be ill-advised, she thinks, to claim that profit-seeking makes one inherently corrupt, especially if it is balanced by other virtues.
Four years later, she completed a 600-page sequel, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.” “I’ve forgotten how to write short books,” she says apologetically, adding that she would like both to be part of a four-volume series on the bourgeois era.
The danger of our era is that the bourgeois deal is slowly crumbling away. It is under attack from the political left and also from economists whose work revolves around one sole virtue—prudence—thus eroding the public understanding of markets and economic life. Looking at the West’s current economic woes, it is easy to share Ms. McCloskey’s concern that unless we revive a sense of dignity and approbation for entrepreneurship and innovation, we might easily kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of our prosperity.
Oddly, I had just finished reading about McCloskey when a friend on Facebook alerted me to another article, this one in US News Today. It’s an interview with the founder of the Davos World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab.
Capitalism is out of whack, the founder of the World Economic Forum says, welcoming critics’ ideas of how to fix it — even those camped out in protest igloos near his invitation-only gathering of global VIPs.
“I’m a deep believer in free markets, but free markets have to serve society,” he said in Davos, the ski resort tucked away deep in the Swiss Alps. He lamented excesses and “lack of inclusiveness in the capitalist system.”
“We have sinned,” he said, adding that this year’s forum would put particular emphasis on ethics and resetting the moral compass of the world’s business and political community.
He even invited protesters from Occupy to share their thoughts with the Davos participants.
Maybe, just maybe there’s something stirring that will make real change possible.
The last of my revelations comes from another arena altogether. On Saturday, I was listening to the broadcast of Tosca from the Metropolitan Opera. The soprano was Patricia Racette. I had read something about her before, probably even heard her sing. She was wonderful. My curiosity was piqued and I googled her—what else?—only to discover that she was not only very lovely, she was a lesbian in a thirteen plus year relationship with another fine opera singer who was equally beautiful, Beth Clayton. An interview with the two of them in the April 2008 issue of Afterellen was refreshing and enchanting. And also well worth reading.
I know the world is a scary place and getting scarier but my God, it’s still full of magic!