When my daughter and her musician boyfriend were heading to Glastonbury this year, I dug out – just for myself – some old photos of the festival back-in-the-day. Dreamlike images of absurdly young people with preposterous hair (well beyond the shoulders, and that was only the boys) in a churned-up field, in what we then thought was a crowd.
Compared with today’s packed hordes, it was nothing. I realised, though, that of all the things we couldn’t then have imagined – from glamping in luxury yurts to branded sweatshirts – top of the list were some of the performers. If someone had told me then that many years later two of the leading acts would be women of 68 – I mean, of course, those musical greats Debbie Harry and Dolly Parton – I would never have believed it.
Back then, women in their late sixties had permed iron-grey hair, knitted a lot and talked mainly to other people’s babies. Or so, with all the cruelty of youth, we thought. In the intervening decades, though, women in all branches of the arts have made flourishing late careers, or maintained the success of their youth far beyond expectations – think of actors Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, both 80 this year and more in demand than ever, or choreographer Gillian Lynne about to remake one of her best-known creations, Cats, at 88, or Bridget Riley, splashed across the media for a London show of mostly new work at the age of 83.
In the literary world, this seems nothing new. I was always under the belief that George Eliot had started writing “very late” – actually, she was 37, pretty ancient at the time. Now we have the example of Penelope Fitzgerald, whose first novel appeared when she was over 60 (she won the Booker Prize just two years later), or Anita Brookner (first book at 53, Booker at 57, still with us at 86).
Women in all branches of the arts have made flourishing late careers, or maintained the success of their youth
And, more recently, there is the previously little-known American short story writer Edith Pearlman, 78, who suddenly emerged a couple of years ago from a quiet life in Massachusetts to scoop several of the hottest awards in the US.
The phenomenon got its first official stamp in 2000, at the opening of Tate Modern in London. So many years in the planning, such an important marker for contemporary art: think of the soul-searching there must have been about the opening show. They could have pulled in any artist in the world. Yet the artist of choice was a then-88-year-old woman, Louise Bourgeois. Quite a significant statement for a temple of the new.
This is not to suggest, of course, that Bourgeois was an unknown; by that time, far from it. But her career was almost a prototype of this trend, consisting as it did of a long middle age of no special renown followed by a spectacular late run, with work that became if anything freer and more ambitious, ever more inventive. She died at 98, just as yet another huge international exhibition was about to open.
There’s a U-shape to many such female careers. Bridget Riley had tabloid-level celebrity in the 1960s but by the 1980s found herself marginalised – to re-emerge after another couple of decades as a star name. And Yayoi Kusama, who is 85 and one of the art market’s hottest properties, also had a glittering youthful moment in the New York art scene of the 1960s followed by many middle-aged years of comparative neglect. Both these women stayed true to their early vision and both show, more than anything, the value of just simply keeping going. The world came back to them, rather than vice versa.
So what is going on here? Of course, beautiful and interesting young women artists are likely to get a keen reception: no surprises there. But in a world slavishly devoted to youthfulness, are middle-aged women just intrinsically boring? Do we only get interesting again in late age, when we no longer remind people uncomfortably of their mothers? The Viennese artist Maria Lassnig, who died just a few months ago at 94, only garnered any real recognition in her late sixties but ended her life as one of Europe’s most sought-after talents.
Or perhaps we’re looking at the particular life circumstances of women born in the first part of the 20th century. Successful creators, like successful criminals, need means, motive and opportunity. Motive is hardly a problem. Means and opportunity? However self-denying one is, there’s a basic requirement of money and time. Just being able to sell a work was a huge hurdle for some of these women, early on; public galleries with their male curators were often uninterested.
Now galleries fall over themselves for women artists, keen to show their coolness, keen to cater to a newly hungry market.
Do we only get interesting again in late age, when we no longer remind people uncomfortably of their mothers?
And time is essential – not just the freedom from one’s children but sometimes from other family members. The artist Paula Rego, now highly successful at 79, looked after her older and then much better-known artist husband, Victor Willing. Only after his death did Rego find her real subject matter (which my colleague Jackie Wullschlager once identified, in the case of many of these artists, as “rage”) and step into her own limelight.
But there’s something else too, something interior. It’s about psychological permission: about allowing yourself to strive and be successful. For women of those generations, perhaps only the post-maternal, post-sexualised self could grasp at the freedoms all creative people need.
Those internalised barriers are something that most young women, thank goodness, can’t even imagine today. If feminism did anything, it did that. It also created a vastly more receptive climate of wider opinion. Maria Lassnig, at 90, wryly entitled one of her exhibitions It’s Art That Keeps One Ever Young. Perhaps it does; or perhaps it celebrates the fact that we’re not.
To listen to culture columns, visit ft.com/culturecast