First Installment April 12, 2023
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
The Return of the Artist
Chapter 8, Part II (from May 21)
(Google The Almond Tree in Blossom by Bonnard)
I found considerably fewer photographs of Bonnard’s closing years, and none comparable to the excellent set that recorded Matisse’s working habits and the progress of the cut-outs at the Hotel Regina. Instead, Bonnard appears in mainly informal snapshots, taken with family and friends, continuing a black and white chronicle that seems to have begun when the artist was around 18.
For most of his adult life, Bonnard’s persona and image remained constant. Whether indoors or outdoors, in official gatherings or leisure activities, he is immaculately dressed in tailored suits, modestly offsetting his slender physique, often sporting a stylish hat. He sometimes peers through neat, tiny spectacles right into the camera, yet is just as apt to look away, either preoccupied by an ongoing task (such as sketching, boating, or pouring tea) or in deference to a chatty companion.
A quality of elusiveness, though, pervaded a number of the photographs, even some of the most direct portrayals. It seemed as if Bonnard might willingly recede into their backgrounds, camouflaged likes the objects of his paintings, not by dreamlike colors and fantastic patterns, but rather by the reality of his own remoteness and ambiguity.
Perhaps Bonnard was naturally shy and reticent except with closest confidantes like Matisse and other artists of his circle. Or was he a truly humble man, devoid of the self-promoting ego of a contemporary like Picasso who dominated the twentieth century with superstar fame? Or was he really afraid of exposing fully his emotions—the underlying passions so dramatically revealed in his canvases—hiding behind the conservative facade of mannered gentility?
One late photograph of Bonnard in 1942, when he was around 75, did capture the vulnerability and despair of the painter. Although, as usual impeccably attired, Bonnard seems somehow naked and unprotected standing alone on his garden path. Hatless, his white hair receding, he is obviously thinner than in previous photos, the healthy trimness of his maturity now a daunting frailty.
Unaware of the photographer and his surroundings, Bonnard is completely self-absorbed, lost not in thought but in sorrow, his hands shoved deeply into his pockets, reinforcing an aura of isolation. Only the winter before, his wife Martha had died, her passing compounded by the deaths and illnesses of other devoted friends. The war, too, was being waged in Europe, his country of France still occupied by the oppressive German forces.
Yet, this slight, elderly figure was executing the most radiant oils of his oeuvre. As I flipped through the back section of one massive book, I was awed by the depth and luminescence of the colors, almost visceral in tactility, as if the weakening Bonnard had poured his life’s blood into every brushstroke. In these works, the Riviera home has now attained the status of a Byzantine palace, its possessions and decor reflecting gloriously in the artist’s imperial palette. An ordinary cupboard glows in flame red, an unopened wine bottle refreshes with the warmest brown, and a mimosa tree in the back yard electrifies the air with solar yellow.
But I was compelled to stop at Bonnard’s very last work, The Almond Tree in Bloom, begun in the final spring of his 79 years and finished with the help of a friend, Charles Terrasse, the following January, the month in which he died. A symbol of resurrection, Bonnard’s tree ascends into heaven, a halo of angel white contrasting against an azure rich sky. Its bark is wet, black, and fertile, nurtured by a compost of gold and orange soil.
Yes, the almond tree was an affirmation of birth, I realized. Yet, was it also a premonition of death? Never had one of Bonnard’s paintings been so impressionistic in style; I felt as if I were viewing his awakening tree through a spiritual veil. The contours of the branches were sketchy and vague, the buds and flowers simply dots of melting pigment. But inexplicably, the overall intensity of the colors prevailed, heightened and strengthened by the strange, atmospheric haze of eternity that engulfed them.
Had Bonnard, who was on the edge of mortality, been blessed with another set of eyes that, in The Almond Tree, opened onto a new reality? And were my students, Sarah, Mrs. Gerasimov, and the others, endowed with similar visions? A sense beyond the sixth, that inner eye of longevity, which enabled them to perceive what I, blinded by youth and immaturity, could not see.
COMING NEXT: THE REBIRTH OF THE ARTIST—MEETING MR. LEE
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