Comment: The Art of Ageing
How can we begin to redefine how we see (or more importantly, don’t see) old age? From literary icons to Instagram stars, older women are having a moment in our modern media. Meanwhile, female artists are seeing their older counterparts as muses. But how can we make sure we engage with the concerns of the elderly and not just see these women as a novelty? Jade French investigates…
There’s a power to being old, and creativity doesn’t stop as we age. Whether it’s an artist like Melanie Manchot blurring the mother/daughter relationship into the realms of a photographer/model rapport or Marna Clarke’s work documenting her own ageing process, many women are exploring how it feels to engage with age in their artwork.
For photographer Candace Karch, her muse is 97 year-old artist Marie Ulmer. In her photo series Ms. Ulmer, Karch documents Marie's life through humour and poignancy. In one shot, Marie lies back on a knitted blanket, in another she poses next to shark jaws in an exhibition. The sheer vivacity of Marie’s personality shines through, as she messes around and poses even at her most vulnerable.
Karch says: “Marie Ulmer is a 97 year old artist who I began to represent at Bambi Gallery in 2007. We became fast friends and we are still friends. She has made a piece of art everyday for the last ninety years… I have been photographing Marie for over five years. The idea for a book project began two years ago. My goal is to produce a book that will include my photographs of Marie in conjunction with her self-portraits, with one as early as age seven. In the years that I have been photographing her, I have discovered her alter ego, or the personality she never explored, has developed in front of the camera to become my muse”.
Meanwhile, in Lisbon, LATA 65 are bringing together the generations through a graffiti initiative. They paired up 100 seniors with famous street-artists and got them to get their stencil on. They’re tackling ageism, and in the process putting together gangs of ‘graffiti grannies’ to colour in the city. Graffiti is an art form we might usually associate with the youngsters – but anyone can tag. The students range from 74 to 92 years old, and add a touch of gravitas to the occasion. The UK has their own version too – the yarn bombers of Cornwall, who engage with ‘craftivism’ and brighten up their towns with knitted graffiti.
There’s also Internet sensation Baddiewinkle ("Stealing your man since 1928"). She's followed by the likes of Rihanna, vocally supports legalising weed and probably had Instagram before you even had dial-up. She has over 2 million followers on Instagram and is ‘friends’ with the likes of Miley and Nicole Richie. Grit Creative Group, a Brooklyn agency, used her as the face of a guerrilla marketing campaign where she dressed like Kurt Cobain and Kate Moss and looked awesome.
Even fashion brands are having an OAP moment – with the iconic literary star Joan Didion becoming the face of Celine last year, photographed by the inimitable Juergen Teller. Joan’s collaboration with the fashion house was credited with ‘saving the Internet’, after Kim Kardashian tried to break it. We've also seen older women being cast in other fashion houses, such as Lanvin model Jacquie Murdock and Iris Apfel, who recently become the face of fashion label Blue Illusion and the new DS3 car. Last year, Selfridges also had a marketing campaign called Bright Old Things, inspired by retired creatives from their 40s through to their 80s.
However, it is easy to critique this 'grey' fashion trend. These women conform to either a certain 'type' of the eccentric older woman or simply reflect normative beauty standards; being white, able-bodied and slender. Although it is great to see some fashion norms bucked, there is still a long way to go before an older person in their 'fourth age' (often seen as a span of years that include biological and functional decline) are given visibility through these marketing plans. Perhaps it is through more traditional art forms that we see a real engagement with the ageing process, one that balances between a true representation and the relationship between artist and subject.
Overall, these are just a few examples of how we’re slowly bringing older faces into our everyday – be it through advertising, Instagram feeds or galleries. It is important to show both sides of the ageing process – not just the deemed 'success stories' that conform to society's tendency to privilege youth. Our obsession with age has to evolve, moving the goal-posts to bring older people into the fold to realise that creativity can stay alive, whatever your next birthday is.