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Monday, October 1, 2018

Final Paintings

A Bar At The Folies-Bergère, 1882, Édouard Manet (1832-1883), undoubtedly the artist's last major masterpiece.
There's an old saying, usually attributed to the French film actor, Maurice Chevalier: “Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” There are several other permutations of the phrase, which Chevalier uttered in 1959, though it can be reliably traced back to at least 1953. A few days ago I celebrated my 73rd birthday, which is quite an accomplishment in my view, given the number of major health issues I'm coping with and the fact that most of my blood relatives never made it past age 72. However, that was then, this is now. Without getting into an "organ recital," were it not for the miracles of modern medicine, I would have probably been dead a decade or two ago. The other day, as I finished my most recent painting, I morbidly asked myself, will this be my final painting? Probably not, given the fact that history records many great artists still creating up to and including the day they died. Fortunately, art is not a very strenuous activity, ideal for old age.
Lake of Water Lilies, 1917-1920, Claude Monet (1840-1926)
For Example, Les Grandes Decorations (above, 1920-26) are among the French Impressionist, Claude Monet’s most famous works. He had to build a new studio to accommodate the huge, 91 x 2 meter canvases, and in the process almost went blind from cataracts. The paintings were enormous curved murals that depict the famous water lilies that lined his beloved pond. Monet conceived of the idea when he was 70, and it took him ten years to complete the works. The artist painted Les Grandes Decorations when both his eyesight and health were failing. As his eyesight declined, his works turned from vivid, bright colors to blurred mixtures of browns and reds. Monet wrote letters to friends, describing how colors were getting dull and indistinguishable--he even resorted to labeling his tubes of paint. By the time the paintings were finally finished, Monet was on his deathbed. Generously, he donated the fruits of his last ten years to the French government. Today, they hang in l’Orangerie Museum in Paris. Cut from the same cloth was the French painter, Edouard Manet. While still in his mid-forties he began to suffer severe pain and partial paralysis in his legs. In 1879 he began receiving hydrotherapy treatments at a spa near Meudon intended to improve what he believed was a miner circulatory problem. In reality he was suffering from locomotor ataxia, a little-known side-effect of syphilis. In many cases it's difficult to pinpoint even a famous artist's final work of art. In his final years, Edouard Manet painted many small-scale still lifes of fruits and vegetables. However, there is little doubt as to Manet's last major work. He completed A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (top), in 1882. It later hung in the Salon that year. The Folies-Bergère was a popular concert café for a fashionable and diverse Paris crowd. The lively bar scene is reflected in the mirror behind the central figure, the sad bar girl. Her beautiful, tired eyes avoid contact with the viewer--who also plays a double role as the customer in this scene. On the marble countertop is an exquisite still-life arrangement of identifiable bottles of beer and liquor, flowers, and mandarins, all of which anticipate the still-lifes of his final two years of life. From that point on, Manet limited himself to small formats. His last paintings were of flowers in glass vases. In April 1883, because of gangrene resulting from his syphilis and rheumatism, his left foot was amputated. Manet died in Paris eleven days later on April, 30, 1883.

The Sheaf, 1953, Henri Matisse (1869-1954).
Best known as a painter, Henri Matisse was an enormously influential artist who helped define and shape the European visual culture of the early 20th century. His expressive use of color and brush strokes became synonymous with the Fauvist style. In 1941, Matisse, then 72, was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. He underwent surgery that left him unable to walk. Painting and sculpture became physically impossible, so he embraced a new type of medium--cutouts. With the help of his assistants, he began creating cut paper collages, pre-painted with gouache and arranged to compose colorful and lively forms. His last work, The Sheaf (above, 1953), was a piece made from ceramic tile embedded in plaster, completed a year before his death. Even in his final years, Matisse continued to innovate, and redefine the Fauvist movement.

Frida Kahlo loved watermelons. Her husband, Diego Rivera hated them.
The beloved Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, is well known for her magical realist self-portraits, and her vivid and depictions of the female experience. Viva La Vida (upper image, 1954) was her last work, completed just eight days before she died in 1954 at the age of 47. The official cause of death was declared pulmonary embolism, but many believe her death to be a suicide. Having spent months bedridden after a leg was amputated at the knee, Kahlo was dealing with chronic pain, and had tried to take her life before. On the night she died, she gave her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, a wedding anniversary gift (over a month in advance). The painting is a still life with watermelons, a fruit that in Mexico is laden with cultural symbolism as a popular icon in the Dia de los Muertos (the festival of the Day of the Dead). Kahlo’s Spanish inscription on the melons, "viva la vida" is a haunting phrase, meaning "long live life." Kahlo’s husband, was another prominent Mexican painter and cultural critic. Rivera's large frescoes helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement, while his stormy relationship with Frida was the inspiration for many of her paintings. Several years older than his wife, Rivera died of natural causes at the age of 70, just three years after his wife’s untimely death. His last work, The Watermelons (lower image, above) was a strange echo of his wife's chosen image, which also depicted watermelons. The painting was supposedly produced after Dolores Olmedo, one of his greatest patrons, commissioned him to paint it for her. Initially Rivera refused. Only when Olmedo threatened to commission another prominent artist did the ever-proud Rivera agree. The Watermelons (1957) was the last painting he ever completed and signed.

Self-portrait Facing Death,
Pablo Picasso (June 30, 1972).
Although Picasso worked up until the day he died at age 91; literally painting till 3 a.m. on Sunday, April 8th, which was just hours before his death. There is no small amount of dis-agreement among art historians as to which of several late works by the prolific artist was actually his last. His last well-known work, Self Portrait Facing Death (left) was not his last. It was done a little less than a year before his death, June 30, 1972. The piece is done with crayon on paper, and took several months to complete. A friend, tells of Picasso holding up the drawing beside his face to show that the expression of fear was a contrivance. Some three months later, his friend recalled that the harsh colored lines were even deeper, giving the obvious impression that he was staring his own death in the face. There is much com-mentary about this piece having to do with Picasso's fear of death and how terrified his eyes look. According to a complete catalog of the artist's works in sequential order, it appears that he did several other self-portraits after the one above.

Vincent van Gogh's final painting? Three possibilities.
If there exists some controversy as to the final work of a famous painting icon such as Picasso, imagine the questions arising as to the last painting of an almost completely unknown artist (at the time of his death, that is). The ominous and haunting Wheatfield With Crows (upper image, above) is often mistakenly said to be Vincent van Gogh’s final painting. Although it was certainly one among his final works, scholarly analysis of the artist’s letters indicates that Wheatfield With Crows was completed around two weeks before his suicide in July 1890. That means that van Gogh’s actual last painting was probably Daubigny’s Garden (middle image, above), one of three depicting the large garden of Charles-François Daubigny, a painter whom van Gogh deeply admired. The idyllic garden scene is a sharp contrast to the darker Wheatfield With Crows, offering no apparent hint of van Gogh’s mental torment. However another work from the same month is indeed tormented. Tree Roots and Trunks (lower image, above)was painted in July of 1890 when van Gogh lived in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. The painting is an example of the double-square canvases that he employed in his last landscapes. Van Gogh spent the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town just north of Paris, after he left an asylum at Saint-Rémy in May 1890. The painting is considered by some experts to be his last painting before his death. In any case, on the morning of July 27, 1890, van Gogh went outdoors to paint, apparently taking with him a loaded pistol. He then attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest, although the bullet failed to kill him. He died two days later at the age of 37 in the presence of his brother. Van Gogh never achieved any real success or fame before his untimely death. As a result, his mother disposed of a large number of his works, making the efforts of art historians doubly difficult.

Riding With Death, 1988,
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988),
died from a drug overdose. 


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