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Paula Coston praises writers and artists who give older women their due

April 12, 2015
Goya, 'Until death', from the 'Witches and old women' album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Francisco Goya, from his ‘Witches and old women’ album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Goya, 'Women jumping', from his 'Witches and old women' album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Fancisco Goya, ‘Women jumping’, from his ‘Witches and old women’ album, late 18th to early 19th century.

OK, so most of us recognise that the demographic is changing: that the older generation is beginning to overtake the younger by a considerable margin. But that’s ‘recognise’ in theory. Certainly in the media, advertising and the arts, the consciousness lag, the large-scale head-burying in the sand is unjust and majorly irritating. Meanwhile in literature and art the caricaturing, stereotyping, pigeonholing and sidelining of older people persists.

An article in the New York Times on 26 January 2014, and the piece it provoked the next day in The Huffington Post by novelist Holly Robinson, bear me out. The original text, Writer of a Certain Age, reported novelist Fay Weldon’s advice to her creative writing students to avoid the ‘mistake’ of writing a book with a main character in her 50s: ‘mistake’ because agents and publishers probably wouldn’t touch it. Holly Robinson’s agent agreed emphatically when Robinson proposed a novel with a main female character approaching her 60s. But this isn’t just about the negative views towards older age of agents and publishers: although more women buy books than men, most purchasers are younger than 45. The audience too, you see. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/holly-robinson/how-old-is-too-old-for-a_b_4676796.html). The problem doesn’t just stem from the wilful blindness of a few professions but of society at large.

As an older woman I’ve combed modern fiction, poetry, paintings and more for a sensitive and nuanced attention to my stage and state of life. And the good news is that slowly, slowly, the situation is changing. Here, f’rinstance, are a few recent examples of novels with a rounded, authentic, older female protagonist:

– Hilary Boyd: Thursdays in the Park; Tangled Lives; When You Walked Back into My Life;Solstice, co-written with Barbara Roddam (Boyd specialises in the possibility of romantic relationships for older women, but – sadly, in my view – has got labelled with the ugly term ‘grannylit’).
– Sheila Hancock, Miss Carter’s War (inspired by seeing an older woman in a shop being ignored).
– Stewart O’Nan, Emily, Alone.
– Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.
– There’s also my own attempt of course: On the Far Side, There’s a Boy (http://www.amazon.com/On-Far-Side-Theres-Boy/dp/178279574X).

In 2010, just before Mothers’ Day, Carol Ann Duffy commissioned poets to write with sensitivity about age and ageing. The results are wonderful, for instance Gillian Clarke’s poem Blue Hydrangeas, September:

‘You found them, lovely, silky, dangerous,
their lapis lazulis, their indigoes
tide-marked and freckled with the rose
of death, beautiful in decline.
I touch my mother’s skin. Touch mine.’

Other poems are Old Flame by Linda Chase; What I Regret by Nina Cassian; Mrs Baldwin by Fleur Adcock; Ageing by Ruth Fainlight; and many more. You can even hear some being read if you follow this link: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/13/carol-ann-duffy-poems-ageing.

Then there are a burgeoning number of films in a trend towards foregrounding older characters that arguably started with Mama Mia: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… (though these border on cliché here and there, not to mention the obligatory comedy and happy ending).

So how do we get more of all this? By commenting on and reviewing such literature etc. enthusiastically when it comes out, obvs. And with the internet, there’s the scope for mass evangelising. Some of this can come from older writers and artists, can’t it, since they know whereof they speak? Hence it’s great to see the website Bloom,

‘a literary site devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older. Bloom is also a community of artists and readers who believe that “late” is a relative term, not an absolute one, and who are interested in bringing to attention a wide variety of artistic paths – challenging any narrow, prevailing ideas about the pacing and timing of creative fruition. If someone is labeled a “late bloomer”, the question Bloom poses is, “Late” according to whom?’ (http://bloom-site.com/about/)

Note that Bloom is for readers as well as creators, so even if we’re not arty, we should use it, and support it to the hilt. (Not that older creative types should feel some sense of obligation, or constriction, to focus on their own generation – any more than younger types should stick to a youthful agenda. Think Mary Wesley, who began writing adult fiction at the age of 71, but whose palette was broad and deep.)

Internet articles are more and more celebrating older women artists and their work. Age shall not wither her by Emine Saner in 2008 spotlights Paula Rego, Gillian Ayres, Ana Maria Pacheco Maria Lassnig, then 89 (who, like me, never married or had children) and Natalie d’Arbeloff. d’Arbeloff, guest editor of the piece, argues that

’emotional involvement in itself undeniably soaks up art-making energy for many female artists, and can divert it….I wanted to know how those who are the exception managed to focus their creative elan consistently and continuously throughout a long career’ [my italics]

– which is what the feature examines (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jun/18/women.healthandwellbeing).

Jackie Wullschlager’s In praise of older women (2010) claims that

‘now old age among female artists and writers is the new chic….In the 21st century, creative women in their eighties and nineties such as Louise Bourgeois…, Leonora Carrington… and Diana Athill… emerged from the tunnel of obscure middle-age to become glamorous if not household, at least drawing-room names.’

She also cites Bridget Riley (now 84); recently deceased Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell and Alice Neel; and Yayoi Kisama, in her eighties and living in a Tokyo mental hospital. This is an insightful piece, highlighting how the fact that the ‘male-dominated highways’ of the art world are still catching up with feminist thought at all is one reason for the marginalisation of younger, as well as older, female artists – hence the older ones’ ‘late blooming’. I love Wullschlager’s description of one of Lassnig’s artworks, a naked and frank self-portrait aged 86

‘holding two guns, one pointing at her head, the other at the viewer – the uncompromising stare challenging us to underestimate the emotional life of old age’.

Wullschlager asks:

Will these be the grandes dames of mid-21st century art? The belated triumphs of Bourgeois, Rego and Kusama show that the tortoise is as likely to win as the hare.’

It would be great if she were right.

Lest we become sexist about this, male creatives can be enlightened and nuanced about older women, too. One of the best on the subject of Us (IMHO) dates back a while. The fantastic exhibition of Francisco Goya’s album, these days titled The Witches and Old Women, is on at the Courtauld Gallery, London until 25 May this year. Goya doesn’t just move beyond the stereotypes (witch, hag, harridan, sex-starved madwoman, old maid, harpie, repulsive crone, spiteful bitch, obscene lustress, overdue corpse): he treats and overturns them. A classic example of this is Until death.

At first glance, a decaying, over-prettified woman seems to be preening herself in her finery before a looking glass, rightly whispered about by the sneering dandies in the background. But look again and there’s something kinder and more generous than this about it: Goya seems to understand her need to enhance her looks, empathises with her desire to maintain appearances. And the onlookers – apart from the sympathetic or thoughtful maid – seem, well, a bit nasty themselves. The sketch is multi-layered: it’s also about the indomitable spirit of old age.

In this album and others, there are cartoons (in the original sense of the word) of two old women pulling each other by the hair and tumbling together as if into an abyss (They descend quarrelling); but equally, of a merrymaking older couple, man and woman, laughing and rising up in blank space, as if on an updraught of happiness (They ascend joyfully). Old age brings rages, Goya seems to tell us – and, perhaps more unexpectedly, energy and strength; but joy and pleasure too.

There are also sweet, touching, dare I say almost inspirational, images: the devotion and stoicism of an old woman totally absorbed and hunched in prayer in She won’t get up till she’s finished her prayers; Content with her lot, a toothless old woman dancing playfully on her own shadow to the accompaniment of castanets – yes, old age can bring fun, even ecstacy; and an almost algebraic equation of equalised power with Expressive of double strength, a sketch of an old woman struggling forcefully with a man on the ground. Then there are the ones at the top of this piece, of course: the first, a tender portrait of an old lady examining herself in the mirror, quite untroubled by her ancient looks – a neat, more reassuring companion to Until death.

Goya excels at titles. I’m tempted to see him almost as the earliest blogger in the way that he combines his words with images. There’s Old women fight too. I especially like his Just can’t go on at the age of 98, a depiction of an ancient (man or woman, it’s hard to say), bowed over and hobbling along painfully on two sticks. The point is that s/he IS going on, and will. Funniest title-image coupling is perhaps Showing off? Remember your age, in which an old man is careering helplessly and headfirst down the stairs. Goya reminds us here, figuratively as well as metaphorically, that we’ll all, both women and men, be levelled to a new plane by old age.

If Goya could do it in the 1790s, there must be more bloggers, writers, artists of all kinds who can dissect oncoming age in witty, wonderful and sensitive, nuanced ways – and people who will encourage them and champion them when they do.

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