“L’Oeuvre Ultime”

Fondation Maeght

At first blush the premise of “L’Oeuvre Ultime” (The final work)––to present works by 24 artists, all renowned Modernist masters, made in the last years of their lives—teeters on the brink of a patronizing sentimentality. (It might be subtitled a “celebration of the human spirit,” or some such.) But it raised pointed questions about notions of style and creativity, problematic subjects that the recent churn of the art market, with its emphasis on novelty, has tended to obscure.

Given the theme of the show—curated by Jean-Louis Prat, director of the Fondation Maeght, and featuring 124 paintings by artists ranging from Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas, to Georges Braque, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and Asger Jorn—it was impossible not to read through the paintings to the lives of the artists who made them. This sort of transference is familiar in popularized versions of artists’ lives. Here, though, there was little of the usual message offered by such tales—that the artist struggles on, heroically creating, knowing that art somehow transcends death. Instead, the paintings offered conflicting, and therefore more plausible, evidence of these artists’ attitudes in the face of their impending deaths.

Not surprisingly, most of the artists didn’t change styles in a radical way, but instead simply continued on with their work. A few made paintings that refer specifically to death, but rather than sentimentalizing it, they tended to treat it as a mystery, an oblivion. In Paul Klee’s Der Engel des Todes (The angel of death, 1940), a ghostly white head floats above the muted colors of a pattern of geometric forms, while in Joan Miró’s Personnages, oiseaux dans la nuit (Faces, birds in the night, 1973), a rising sea of black figures threatens to obliterate the brightly colored background. The looser handling of color and line in the late work of artists such as Henri Matisse or Claude Monet serves as another reminder of the theme of “final works,” suggesting the diminishment of the artists’ physical powers. But whatever reduction in capabilities these artists may have experienced was in most cases made up for by their command of a language of form and expression.

Repeatedly one has the sense that these artists were being freed from worldly questions of fame and fortune and concentrating on issues of painting, as they reworked problems and ideas that they had dealt with earlier, only now with a sure confidence, a willingness to push their work to the limits of their understanding.

This show ventured into critically charged territory. The myth of the artist-genius—an essential part of the popular image of Modernism—has become a prime target of artists and critics alike. Post-Modernism, with its sociological emphasis replacing the psychological emphasis of Modernism, has tended to locate the sources of style outside the individual artist, in social factors and historical tendencies. This hugely popular show revived, without endorsing, the stories of lifelong creativity that are a prime component of the almost religious faith in artists that permeates Modernism.

Viewed another way, though, it simply offered evidence of the work of people who spent their lives making paintings, and who continued to paint until their deaths. By allowing viewers to focus on that aspect of the artists’ lives, this exhibition not only demystified the process of art-making, but also argued forcefully for the role of the individual artist in the development of style.

Charles Hagen