Art, ageing and the body

Authored by: Michelle Meagher

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415631143
eBook ISBN: 9780203097090
Adobe ISBN: 9781136221033


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At the age of 75, acclaimed American painter Alice Neel began work on her first and only self-portrait. In Self-portrait (1980), Neel is perched on the edge of a wide, blue-striped chair. Her hair is short and completely white; she wears gold-rimmed glasses. In her right hand she holds a brush, in her left a rag. Neel gazes directly at the viewer. She’s completely naked. This image has been described as shocking, endearing, and unconventional (see Dabbs 2012, Garrard 2006). It is a key image in the contemporary representation of old age, partly because it sidesteps the art historical conventions that so often link the old body with, on the one hand, degeneration and death, and on the other hand, wisdom and self-reflection. It is also significant that it is through self-representation that Neel explores the question of ageing. Like many of the artists discussed below, Neel begins to reflect on the matter of ageing in response to her own experiences of getting old. Indeed, much contemporary art that reflects on ageing is produced by artists who have moved into or beyond middle age, and much of their work is self-representational. The chapter first considers the ways in which art historians have talked about the matter of age in the history of western art, and then examines the emergence of art, mostly but not exclusively self-representational, that positions age and ageing as central themes of exploration.

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