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18 July 2023

The mysteries of late style

Christopher Neve’s study of great painters reveals the risks and rewards of creating art at the end of life.

By John Banville

It is rare indeed to encounter a book about art which is itself a work of art. George Painter’s Marcel Proust is one such, as is Leon Edel’s masterly life of Henry James. Both, however, are works of art by default, since they are primarily concerned with biography, but manage to transcend the form through the highly developed aesthetic sensibilities of their authors.

Christopher Neve’s Immortal Thoughts is a direct and conscious attempt to distil, by a passionate engagement with the work of 18 artists, the essence of art itself, or, rather, to approach as closely as possible the essential mystery that every true work of art embodies. As he writes in relation to one of his subjects, Chaïm Soutine, “This storm of temperament is true painting, an inexplicable combination of seeing, feeling, memory, response, imagination and profound oddness.” The latter half of that sentence could be taken as a handy characterisation of the book itself.

[See also: Visions of St Francis]

A painter, Christopher Neve as a writer is best known for Unquiet Landscape, a study of a number of British artists and their connection with and inspiration by the light and aspect of the English countryside. He has also written a novel, Doubles. He was born in 1942, and is therefore eligible, just about, to write out of personal experience on late style, “that odd compound of thought beyond reason, when, in painting, the constraints of patronage, sharp eyesight and public approval are left behind”.

He is not the first to consider the subject of late style. Edward Said’s full-length study with that title, itself a late work, is a profound meditation on the way in which artists – Beethoven is his prime example – at the end of their working lives free themselves of all constraint and turn inwards to find, in Neve’s formulation, “a way of working that transcends technique and sets no store by the ability to finish”.

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The leaving of works unfinished is frequently a mark of late style. When an admirer enquired of Beethoven why he had not written a third movement to the piano sonata Opus 111, as convention would require, the composer answered brusquely that he had not had time. His impatience is understandable. As anyone who has listened at all closely to that extraordinary masterwork will recognise, a closing movement to it is unthinkable. As Thomas Mann and others have remarked, the sonata, the last that Beethoven would compose, as it stands brings the entire sonata form virtually to an end. The “late” in late style inevitably sounds a funeral bell.

Neve tells us that he wrote the book during the Covid-19 pandemic, hence the “plague” of the subtitle. The short chapters devoted to painting and painters are interspersed with even shorter reports from the charnel house, as it were, as the virus rampages. The author isolated himself in the countryside, “in rooms I had known as a child”, and worked from memory, from books and exhibition catalogues.

And imagination, he should have added, for he writes about the lives and daily doings of his subjects with a novelist’s freedom and intensity. His powers of empathy and evocation are prodigious. Again and again we are “there’” with Titian in Venice, with Rembrandt in Amsterdam, with Bonnard in Le Cannet on the Côte d’Azur. No less vivid are Neve’s descriptions of the glorious spring, summer and autumn of 2020, as the pandemic swept irresistibly eastwards with its unsparing scythe. It was as if the world had taken pity on us, as we cowered before the blade, and offered us a crumb of consolation by way of the weather. Here is Neve writing of a “celebration of white” in that late spring:

May trees, and the double may, flowered in great profusion, lit by bright sunlight. Chestnut trees carried ever broader towers of white bloom. The white of chequer trees began. Cow parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, grew tall and flowered white with great exuberance in fields and ditches. And, above white plants, the gigantic rounded heads and full sails of sun-bright cumulus swelled up as white as laundry.

He turns his gaze frequently to the sky, with an eye for cloud formations as acute and ample as Poussin’s.

The opening chapter is on Cézanne, and specifically the watercolours that were among the painter’s last works. Here we are presented for the first of many times with the “indefinable subject”, which will be Neve’s quarry throughout, one that he will never track down, but whose lair, at least, he manages to locate.

As he entered upon old age, Cézanne’s personal uncouthness, his “rudeness, even crudity”, became more and more an aspect of his work, “because what he is looking for is not refinement but the absolute truth”, that “quite terrifying truth” which stands behind the so-called ordinary. The old painter is seeking “a way to make the unseen visible”, and Neve, somewhat ingenuously, claims he succeeded. But how could he? Surely what art shows us, what it directs our gaze towards, is the “essential mystery” that Neve locates at the heart of things. And that mystery, while palpable, may not be revealed, even by an artist as great as Cézanne.

Cézanne’s wife, Neve tells us, said to Matisse of her husband: “You understand, he didn’t know what he was doing.” Neve contradicts her. Yet a little further on he cites, approvingly, so it seems, Degas remarking that “only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things”, while “Cézanne says something similar about not stopping to think”.

To draw attention to the anomalies that arise at certain points in his narrative – and Immortal Thoughts is a narrative, if a discontinuous one – is not to accuse Neve of confusion or inconsistency. It is one of the many strengths of this marvellous book that it accepts the arbitrariness of all judgements of art and artists.

[See also: Fifty years after Picasso’s death, we still struggle with the figure of the monstrous genius]

In the chapter on Titian, still at work in his late eighties, we are confronted again with the possibility that “behind the ordinary is some terrifying truth”, the eternal verity we know is there, the elusiveness of which torments us, and which we can only approach, if we can approach it at all, crabwise. So it is for even the greatest: “Titian works out of chance and intuition towards a kind of exuberance, much as conversations consist of things we do not say.”

Considering Michelangelo and his “Last Five Drawings”, Neve insists that these are “drawings of ideas. He has made ideas’ chief province the incomparable human form.” We are shown The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John in a colour plate; it is the quintessence of late style – liminal, hesitant, worked at, yet wholly persuasive. Neve writes: “Do not say: this is drawing by an old man’s shaky hand. For it is drawing by one of the greatest sensibilities there has ever been, at its wits’ end.”

Rembrandt, Neve reminds us, spent much of his adult life at wits’ end. The charter of his woes is distressing in the extreme: “It may just be possible to talk about painting in relation to suffering,” Neve laconically observes, and goes on to tell us “a short story about three women” who were the successive partners, more or less briefly, of the painter. His first wife, Saskia, died when she was 29. Next came Geertje Dircx, who started out as nurse to the widower’s baby son. She pawned Saskia’s jewellery, and he brought a case against her and got her confined to a reformatory. Meanwhile the painter had taken Hendrickje Stoffels, the daughter of a soldier, into his house. In time she became his common-law wife and mother of his third child. He would not marry her, and she was prosecuted for fornication and refused communion by her church. “I have described these three women,” Neve writes, “because their suffering is also Rembrandt’s suffering.”

Rembrandt was steadily going broke, and at one stage was reduced to selling Saskia’s grave for a small sum. Yet he went on working, every day, into old age, when “a breathtaking gentleness and sympathy arises in the last few pictures”, and through his hardship and the hardship of those around him he at last came close “in the most mysterious way to expressing the very essence of what it is to be human”. But the emphasis here is on that word “mysterious”. Thinking of a Rembrandt self-portrait from 1657, Neve concludes “that the picture is of something out of sight”.

The painter, and the painting, that address most tellingly the persisting theme of Neve’s book are Velázquez and his sublime masterpiece, Las Meninas, a grave yet playful, not to say mischievous, group portrait centring on the five-year-old daughter of Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, the infanta Margarita Teresa, who will die at the age of 21 after enduring seven pregnancies. This picture, one of the greatest works of Western art, is at once luminous and shadowed. The more one looks at it, the more of itself it withholds. This is a part of its greatness.

All true works of art exist in a state of withdrawal, as Neve repeatedly acknowledges. This is why we return to these works again and again; it is why their newness never fades. To confront Las Meninas is to be confronted, figuratively and literally. Of the 11 figures depicted, if we accept as figures the king and queen dimly reflected in the small mirror on the back wall and discount the wonderful dog, three look directly at the viewer. These are the infanta herself, the lovingly fashioned dwarf Maribárbola, and the painter himself, though he may have one eye on the painting before him on the easel.

What do their gazes convey? At most, a knowing absence. The world of the picture, Velázquez’s amused eye informs us, is closed: we may not enter there, where time has no dominion, where the King and his consort are inconsequential phantoms, where Margarita Teresa will never get pregnant and never die. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels,” says Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, “the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” Neve puts it more simply: “In the end the picture is both heartbreakingly beautiful and a complete mystery.”

Neve’s final chapter is his finest. Soutine is obviously one of his favourite painters: “Everything is painted in fat, blood, lard and spittle,” he writes, and celebrates him as the very definer of his subject: “This, in the end, is what great late painting can be: the world reduced to a series of prodigious impulses, the revelation of the inner self intact, the chance taken to see the universe in a new light at the risk of failing utterly.”

John Banville’s most recent novel is “The Singularities” (Knopf)

Immortal Thoughts: Late Style in a Time of Plague
Christopher Neve
Thames & Hudson, 160pp, £14.99

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[See also: The poet of ordinary days: William Trevor’s quiet artistry]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world