Late Styles, Part 1

In the last room of the Francis Bacon exhibition, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, after previously touring the Tate and the Prado, hangs a group of paintings from the final decade of Bacon’s life. They are spare. Patches of the grisliness that characterized the work throughout his career remain, but the paintings Bacon made as his life extended into an eighth decade are conspicuously underfurnished. Figures stand amid calm vacancies of a single color. In two self-portraits, from the second-to-last room, the most striking feature is the gold watch on the artist’s wrist. He smothers his face in a hand.

The gallery label under one painting reports Bacon’s observation that, as he grew older, he came to recognize the superfluity of ‘nine-tenths’ of everything in art. As life began to cut things out of him – friends, lovers, his own health – he began to cut things out of his art.

Bacon is hardly unique in having made a late-career turn toward severity as a ruling aesthetic. The Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, currently has on view an extraordinary show of the great Venetian painters – Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese – that likewise uses its final room to explore the work of those artists in their last years. Titian is most remarkable: he had a long life, and so knew the end was coming. (Unlike Veronese, who died suddenly.) Titian’s depiction of Saint Jerome in the wilderness – nearly naked, leaning his body against the wind – is both stark and loose: an old man painted by an old man. (As Sebastian Smee, the art critic for the Boston Globe, observed in his terrific review of the exhibition, this Saint Jerome brings to mind ‘King Lear on the heath.’) The last piece in the show is a late self-portrait by Tintoretto. It compacts all of a life into a small frame that contains only the face, wry and bearded and melancholy. In the Bacon exhibition hangs a triptych of similar self-portraits, in which Bacon seems to press his rounded face against the glass of the frame, forcing you to give frank consideration to human desuetude just as Bacon himself must have been doing at the time.

Writers are immune to none of these symptoms, of course, and in their late careers they often manifest the same stripping away of ornamentation once thought necessary. John Updike provides a recent case. Knopf has published – posthumously and in rapid succession – two slim volumes: Endpoint, a collection of poems written as his health declined; and My Father’s Tears, a book of stories. The poems of Endpoint startle with their directness, their absence of self-pity, their wit.

‘A Lightened Life’ – whose very title signifies the aesthetic of emptying so common in the late styles of many writers and painters – contains these lines:

A lightened life: last novel proofs FedExed –
the final go-through, back-and-forthing till
all adjectives seemed wrong, inferior to
an almost glimpsed unreal alternative

‘Last novel’ has a double meaning, of course: the most recent; and the final. A state of lightness, which more usually implies the shedding of anxieties, is here vacated and desolate, perilously unanchored. The weariness of ‘back-and-forthing till / all adjectives seemed wrong’ tells us that the shine is off the chrome: the writer knows by now that perfection in art is unattainable. It calls to mind a remark, made by Nathan Zuckerman and written by Philip Roth, in Exit Ghost, of Zuckerman’s most recently finished novel:

When I had finished – when, after four drafts, that is, I could go no further . . . I could do as Hemingway did . . . and put the manuscript aside, either to attempt to rewrite it later or to leave it unpublished for good. Or I could do what Faulkner did and doggedly submit the manuscript for publication, permitting the book that he’d labored over unstintingly, and that he could take no further, to reach the public as it was and to yield whatever satisfactions it could.

The act of writing is cast as a war of attrition against imperfection that, in the end, must lose.

One of the words that Roth plants in the middle of Zuckerman’s thought (concerning not only Faulkner but himself) – ‘unstintingly’ – is there to make clear that laziness is not the governing affliction; Zuckerman and Faulkner (and Roth) would never ‘stint’ on a work of fiction. And yet, like Bacon, even in striving to be unstinting – in striving to give freely and flowingly of himself as an artist – he finds that there is so little that can still be given. Spareness proceeds not from an urge to withhold or from a spreading apathy, but from a stark, frightening honesty.

Updike’s poem ends like this:

this morning I couldn’t find the computer code
for the accent grave in fin-de-siècle, one
of my favorite words. What’s up? What’s left of me?

Updike suggests that the emptying of the work correlates with the emptying – involuntary – of the self: lacunae begin to appear in one’s memory; physical motions that once were easy became labored; one sits where one used to stand. He writes of not being able to ‘find the computer code’ as if it is an object lying somewhere under papers on a desk, but he is, of course, searching for and failing to find it within the vanishing rooms of his memory. The line about ‘the accent grave’ is funny, yet the choice of term in need of one – ‘fin-de-siècle’ – is poignant, and carefully chosen: Updike was writing about the end of an era.

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~ by mackenz on June 1, 2009.

One Response to “Late Styles, Part 1”

  1. This is my favorite entry yet. And I am also jealous that you’ve already made it to the Bacon show! I need to get there soon…

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