June 25, 2012

‘Old age is not an illness, it is a timeless ascent…’

Mary Sarton, quoted in Harriet Walter’s Reflections on Images of Older Women (London: Facing It Publications, 2011, p.186)

I love this quote, as it blatantly challenges what society appears to increasingly aspire to, the body that defies age and ageing. We seem to go to endless lengths to hide/mask/deny our age, ignoring our bodies relentless, and necessary, need to age, and to wither. Along the way, we forget to celebrate what it is to be human, and to age.

Thus, it is refreshing to see this year’s winner of the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, Aleah Chapin’s nude painting of a family friend, Auntie. It is an unashamedly proud work of art. ‘Auntie’, with grey, slightly dishevelled hair, stands before us, smiling fondly and indulgently, completely at ease, and comfortable in her skin. It is an ageing skin, and the painting speaks of a reality and a truth that transcends our notions of ‘youthful beauty.’ It is a beautifully seductive, and brave (though it should not need to be, but critics have not universally applauded its honesty) piece. I applauded the decision to award the prize to Daphne Todd in 2010 for the portrait of her dead mother, and I am again heartened and reassured that, amidst so many pressures to do otherwise, we can embrace and celebrate the vulnerability, fragility and beauty that define us, at every age.