Picturing The Day

Every morning before breakfast I look at the picture that’s given on my page-a-day art calendar. This means moving yesterday’s picture to the back of the block of loose-leaf pages that are held in a plastic display stand, so that the picture behind it is revealed. After six months, the whole block of pages is lifted out and turned round. The obverse side provides the images for the second half of the year.

Usually, the day’s picture is a painting, though sometimes it’s an object or a photograph. Often, what’s been chosen is by a famous artist, but not infrequently there are works by people I’ve never heard of. The images can be ancient or modern, and although Western art predominates, there’s material from other cultures too. One of my daughters gave me my first page-a-day art calendar as a Christmas present about half-a-dozen years ago. It had an immediate appeal that’s never faded. I’ve bought one every year since then. It’s become a small part of the way in which I start my day, something that’s taken on sufficient importance that I miss it when I’m away. It’s become so much a part of normal that its absence now feels strange.

The publisher’s blurb on the cardboard sleeve the calendar comes packaged in contains more truth than is usual with advertising patter. “Turn your desktop into a museum of fine art,” “This calendar is a gallery for your desk.” Well, I keep it on a shelf in the kitchen, a room that I’m in no risk of mistaking for a museum or gallery. But for all the hyperbole, yes, I do find “beauty, inspiration and delight” in it, the three words used as a banner headline above the promotional spiel.

There’s a narrow border across the top of every page. In this is printed the day’s date and a caption for the picture. The caption gives the artist’s name and dates of birth and death, the title of the work, when it was completed, the medium in which it’s executed, and where it’s held. This is usually one of the world’s great galleries or museums, but sometimes ownership is attributed to some obscure provincial venue or a private collection. Often, only a detail of a painting is shown in the main picture, which takes up all the page below the caption. In that case, “(detail)” is listed beside the title, and a thumb-nail of the entire thing is given at top right, beside the date. This is just large enough to see the nature of the excerpt. On the day that I’m writing this paragraph the calendar’s caption says: “17 February. Wednesday. 2021. Paul Signac (1863-1935). Notre Dame, 1885. Watercolour on paper. Private collection.”

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It’s the image for the day I look forward to seeing when I turn to a new page every morning. But the calendar also prompts an exercise in elementary mental arithmetic. Looking at the dates given in the caption, I always work out what age the artist was when they died, and how old they were when they made the piece in question.

These little sums are spurred by creative anxiety. I’ve reached an age where, as a writer, it’s easy to harbour the worry that my best work may be behind me. I’m susceptible to a view I do not wish to hold, namely that artistic endeavour—whether it’s the composition of an essay or the painting of a picture—is something that’s done best in one’s prime. I know it isn’t true that youth has an advantage (let alone a monopoly) when it comes to creativity; I know age doesn’t necessarily entail any dulling down. But at some visceral level that’s immune to reason, I fear as I grow older that I’ll be deserted by the muse that, up till now, I’ve always been able to rely on. It’s annoyingly easy to suppose that artistic ability falters with advancing years; that our creative potential at best hits a plateau, at worst enters a downward spiral of steady diminution as we age. 

Given this insecurity, I draw succour from the calendar on those days when I discover something impressive painted by someone in their sixties, seventies, or even eighties. Josephine Turner’s “Poppies, Nill Farm” or “Braid Hills,” both painted when she was sixty-two; Pissaro’s “The Washerwomen,” done when he was sixty-five; seventy-five-year-old Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping;” eighty-year-old Sir John Lavery’s “Girl in a Red Dress, Seated;” Louise Bourgeois’s amazing “Maman” sculpture, created in her eighties. There are numerous heartening instances, but the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) is my favourite. He provides a pin-up example for showing that creativity doesn’t go into age-related decline. In fact with Hokusai, it looks as if the usual gradient of assumption is reversed and he gets incrementally better as he reaches life’s final years.

Hokusai was astonishingly prolific, with some 30,000 designs to his name. But his most impressive output occurred in old age. His famous series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is generally considered his most outstanding work. Among many other brilliantly depicted scenes, it includes that icon of Japanese art par excellence, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The Thirty-six Views was done when Hokusai was in his seventies. Towards the end of his life, he said:

“None of my work done before my seventieth year is really worth counting. At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true form of animals, insects and fish, and the nature of plants and trees. By the age of eighty-six I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level, and at a hundred and ten each dot and line will be alive.”

However extreme and unrealizable, Hokusai’s artistic credo identifies the kind of trajectory I’d like my work to follow. Far from old age entailing any dismal tailing off, rather than allowing a drift into the merely mediocre, just going through the motions and coasting down the final slopes. I’d prefer—however unrealistic it may be—to pledge allegiance to Hokusai’s steely determination to keep improving. It takes admirable chutzpah to dismiss whole swathes of your own output as wanting, and to anticipate better work ahead. But doing so, dismissing anything that doesn’t reach that elusive goal of pulsing with a sense of life—each dot and line of it alive—seems like a good way of ensuring that you don’t rest on whatever laurels you may have laid down in your youth.

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The page-a-day art calendar is a treasure-trove of paintings and other artwork. It may not transform my kitchen into a gallery or museum, but it very definitely provides regular aesthetic enrichment. I feel better for seeing it. In these Covid days of gallery closure and individual seclusion, it’s become a particularly welcome resource. It offers a sense of communion with other people’s creativity, giving easy access to a wealth of striking work. To start the day looking at a work by Brueghel, Rembrandt, Cezanne, or Picasso, or to find on the page an exquisitely crafted Japanese kimono or, in a very different style, a robe from Uzbekistan, or to see looking back at me an elegant Thai sculpture of the walking Buddha, or a carving of one of the ancient Egyptian deities—the examples are legion—is to start the day inspired. The great artworks illustrated in the calendar provide a pleasing counterweight to the often grim news-headlines. Not that the pictures are always cheerful. A Hieronymus Bosch canvas, or a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, contain stark notes of torment. But no matter how dark some of the themes addressed may be, I find my daily dose of art administered by the calendar to be an essentially uplifting thing. 

The calendar is filled with glimpses of other times, other cultures, other outlooks. It provides a range of keyholes, cut into different shapes by a range of artistic sensibilities. These give access to a cornucopia of perspectives on the world. I like the fact that the Introduction to the 2020 calendar began with a quote from Edgar Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” It’s fascinating to be taken on a daily tour through so many different ways of seeing, looking at life through the eyes of a diversity of artists. Though I know it may sound like something trivial, this little routine-ritual of looking at the calendar before breakfast has become a surprisingly important part of how I start my day. It constitutes an affirmation/celebration of creativity that helps to light my way.

Having looked at the picture, worked out how old the artist was when they painted (or sculpted, or photographed, or crafted) it, and their age at death, I often find my thoughts returning to the image at different points throughout my day. I don’t just think of the finished thing. Often, I imagine possible scenarios of the artist working on the piece, and sometimes—a sombre fast-forward—I picture them in their last moments on earth, looking back on—reconsidering—whatever artistic oeuvre they’ve left. I like the fact that in some nook of consciousness I carry through my day someone else’s depiction of a subject, a moment, that struck them forcefully enough to want to craft a likeness of it. 

Sometimes the calendar’s picture fits the season—a wintry scene for a snowy day in January, a landscape of springtime green for one in April. But for the most part there’s no obvious link between the date and the picture given. Thankfully, the compilers have mostly resisted the impulse to try to be topical in their choices. Apart from some lapses at Halloween, St Valentine’s Day, and Christmas, the pictures are simply a sampling of great art spaced out to give an image for each day. The calendar has brokered some wonderful discoveries, alerting me to artists whose work I’ve never seen before, and introducing me to lesser-known work by great artists whose signature pieces have such a prominent place in public consciousness that they can overshadow, even eclipse, other things they did. But most of all, I’m pleased when I discover fine work done by those who are my age or older. 

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Curing my creative anxiety is only one upshot of the mental arithmetic I do each morning. Yes, looking at when the artist completed whatever artwork has been chosen for the day provides encouragement through finding a wealth of counter-examples to the default position I’m prone to sliding into—that is, the view that sees old age as incompatible with artistry. My calculations mean there’s no denying the truth that there are plenty of instances of creativity flourishing in people who are significantly older than I am. Titian, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe—they, and many others, were still artistically active when they were ten or twenty years older than I am now. If artists can continue into their sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond, then surely writers can too.

But my morning sums have another more sombre outcome. They underscore that simplest, most immovable of facts—yet one we tend to shy away from—namely that life doesn’t last forever. Just as for all the artists in the calendar, their birthdate is followed by a death-date, so each one of us, without exception, lives between two fixed points in time. Our momentary phase of being is dwarfed to near nothingness by the swathes of time that come before and will come after, neither holding any trace of us whatever. The calendar offers aesthetic pleasure aplenty, and role models from my seniors to spur my writing. But it’s also a memento mori; an aide memoire for the inevitable—but unpalatable—approach of my own extinction.

My calendar devotions—calculations—often bring two death-related poems back to mind. John Keats’ “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” and Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” Keats’ fear was that he would die before his pen had, as he put it, “gleaned my teeming brain.” Dead of consumption at twenty-six, those fears were well-founded. But though there were fewer “high piléd books” holding in their “rich garners” the “full ripened grain” than there might have been had he lived longer, Keats left behind an oeuvre that any writer would be proud of. This notwithstanding, his fear of not living long enough to express the creativity that burgeoned within him is surely one shared by artists in any medium. Will there be time to forge into paintings, or sculptures, or poems, or films, or novels the things that stir us? Or will we be cut off mid-sentence, with a book unwritten, a canvas unpainted, a film only started?

Working out the artists’ lifespans as I do my calendar-inspired calculations every morning, makes me wonder how these individuals handled the routine mortal terror depicted in “Aubade” with such austere poetic precision. All of them—each one of us—must face the truth that one day we will cease to be. Larkin brilliantly lays out the way our sure knowledge of extinction is at once recognized and denied. The fact of our finitude “stays just on the edge of vision, a small unfocused blur, a standing chill.” One response to this shadow-knowledge that haunts us is, I think, to want to leave behind an account, an image, a testimony to what the world laid upon us; to forge into the form of a painting, or into lines of prose or poetry, a remnant of ourselves that can speak our experience to others when we are no longer here—as Keats’ and Larkin’s poems do, as do the paintings of all the artists in the calendar—elemental as any outline of a hand drawn round with ochre on the wall of some anciently inhabited cave.

I’ve lived for four decades longer than John Keats. I’m thankful that there has been time enough for my pen to glean at least some of what has clamoured for expression in my teeming brain. My books are not exactly “high piléd,” but there are a handful of them. I’ve reached a point where, though I could live for another twenty years or more, become as old as Hokusai, if I died tomorrow it wouldn’t be a tragedy in the way it is when someone in their twenties dies. 

In whatever time remains I’m keen to keep on writing. Where does the impetus behind this thirst for continued self-expression come from, the potent desire to leave upon the page a record of the mind’s impressions? Perhaps it’s rooted in the simple wish to share experience—the same imperative we’ve felt since we first clustered together around our campfires. There’s always been a strong human drive to say, “I found things thus,” and listen to what echoes back from others as they listen—look at—our perspectives, and in turn put into communicable form the way the world has touched them. We seem to be possessed of a primal need to share our stories, to explain how life has fallen on the nets of our individual sentience, to hear how others have felt when faced with the same things that we have faced, to compare experiences. Is it just a sense of companionship we seek, looking for the reassurance of the herd, to know we’re not alone in what terrifies us, what delights us, what mystifies us? No doubt there’s an element of that. But I think there’s also something independent of any audience. In putting words upon a page, in crafting my sentences together, I’m hoping to better understand—to mark and celebrate, commemorate—whatever aspects of my time here happen to catch my attention.

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Sometimes I wonder which year’s page-a-day calendar will hold the image for the day on which I die—this year’s, next year’s, the calendar for 2025 or 2030? And what will the picture selected for that date be? Though the chances are I’ll be past caring by then, looking ahead now, if I could choose, I’d opt for something by Hokusai. Though the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is his most famous work—and I greatly admire it—I have a soft-spot for an even later masterpiece, his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. This is less well-known because it appeared in book form rather than as separate prints, and because it was in black and white not colour—but it’s no less brilliant. From this series I’d choose the twenty-fifth picture in the first volume. I like it, not because it shows Fuji in the background with the sun behind it, in such a manner that it’s referred to as “Fuji as Mirror Stand”—the round disc of the sun seemingly held like a great circular mirror, resting on the mountain’s summit. Rather, I like the human bustle of the foreground, its down-to-earth ordinariness. Two fishermen are maneuvering their boat under a low bridge, over which another fisherman is walking home, his dog following at his heels. He has an oar over his shoulder, from which is hung a bottle of sake. As Henry D Smith puts it in his commentary, “The scene reeks of humanity.” The picture is full of life and so brings Hokusai’s artistic credo back to mind. That would seem a good note to go out on.

Thinking about which picture I’d select as the image for my death-day reminds me of the way in which Larkin, in “Aubade,” looks at how an awareness of our inevitably approaching end can make “all thought impossible but how and where and when I shall myself die.” He describes this as an “arid interrogation,” but one we’re repeatedly drawn to considering. Certainly my calendar ritual-routine often makes me imagine various scenarios for my own demise. The suddenness of heart attack or aneurism, or accident; the lingering of dementia, or stroke-inflicted paralysis. A hospitalized ending with drips and drugs preserving and clouding the mind, or a clear-headed exit in the midst of familiar surroundings. And I think of the great Montaigne, who died—probably from quinsy—in 1592 at the age of 59. He said (in his essay “To Philosophize is to Learn how to die”): “And I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.” I warm to that image in the same way I warm to Hokusai’s credo. At work in the garden, planting vegetables, thinking neither of death, nor of the weeding and pruning and tending that’s needed elsewhere, but simply concentrating on the task in hand. Perhaps by then my back or legs or hands or heart will have made gardening impossible. In that case (and perhaps in any case) for “planting” read “writing,” for “cabbages” read “essays,” for “garden” read “book.”

Author / Ilustrator

  • Chris Arthur is an Irish essayist currently based in Scotland. He’s author of several essay collections, most recently Hummingbirds Between the Pages (2018), and has published in a range of journals. His awards include: the Akegarasu Haya International Essay Prize, and the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Essay Prize. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays and is often included in that series’ ‘Notable Essays’ lists. Further information about his writing can be found here: www.chrisarthur.org.

  • This series of photographs is from Physical Training for Business Men by American author Harrie Irving Hancock. The 1919 book's premise is that a certain quality of physical presence, "impressive carriage and appearance", are essential to "those who would succeed in the business world". The photos were taken by a "Mr Phelan" (who worked with Hancock on a number of other exercise books); the models are unnamed. (Abridged from The Public Domain Review.)