Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Rebirth of the Artist, Mr. Lee and Cezanne

Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.

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.



Return of the Artist

Chapter 8, Part IV (continuing from June 8)

Mr. Lee and Cezanne

Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Son, Paul, 1886-1887,  oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

I glanced down at the glossy heap of Cezanne prints that I had purchased just yesterday at the National Gallery of Art. Sticky with newness they clung statically to the white formica surface of the table. Should I peel them apart…portraits, landscapes, and still lifes—and hand one to Mr. Lee as a gesture of welcome? Or should I continue doggedly onward with the rather cheap reproductions from my Cezanne paperback (euphemistically described as “48 plates in full color”) with which I had, suspected, been boring the group for more than a quarter of a hour?

It wasn’t their fault, since the majority of them were uninitiated in art, unlike my regular evening class. I should be showing them the sunlit vacationlands of the Impressionists, scenes of pleasure and relaxation, not the serious, and what must have appeared to them, ponderous Czannes with titles like The Black Clock, The House of the Hanged Man, Still Life with Soup Tureen, and Rocky Landscape.

For Ceaznne is the elite of painters, an art historian’s ideal—truly a scholar’s artist with a capital A. Although his paintings can be enjoyed by an uneducated eye, for many (including myself), appreciation of his works requires consistent study, observation, and, above all, perseverance.

Each Cezanne, belonging to what is considered his mature period, is an acclaimed masterpiece. A labor less of love, more of sheer will, the master stubbornly shaping and molding every object, person, and the very space of existence into his own recalcitrant universe.

A Cezanne apple has the solidity of centuries, a face, the concreteness of stone, a tree, the impenetrability of Gilbratar. And yet his world is weighted in contradictions—often unstable and insecure. His family home, Jas de Bouffan, a large, solid structure, keels puzzlingly sideward with the awkwardness of a sinking ocean liner. Or his favorite mountain, the monumental Mont Sainte-Victoire, sometimes shifts and jiggles, resembling lop-sided Jell-O. Or, on a smaller scale, ordinary household items—plates, glasses, and decanters—threaten to slip and slide down the artist’s tilting studio table.

Cezanne…part magician, part architect, I reflected. But how could I explain to this audience in one mere session the value and profundity of an artist once designated by Matisse as “the master of us all.”

Maybe if they saw a portrait of Cezanne, they might better understand. I turned to a self-portrait from the Tate Gallery, painted when he was about 40 years old.

Actually, it was a rather benign portrait for Cezanne, especially in comparison to some of his sterner representations of himself. The essential spirit of the painter seemed to be missing, at least to me. Irascible, eccentric, argumentative, and pugnacious were some of the politer adjectives that could be applied to Cezanne. He lived most of his career at Aix-en-Provence, his estate in southern France. An individual of fierce opinions and unpredictable behavior, he unfortunately alienated most of his friends and colleagues by the time of his death in 1906, at the age of 67.

The palette of the painting was subdued, too. Cezanne employing moderate tones of earth color—brown, gray, black—and the design was restricted to a diamond grid in the background. I decided to show the self-portrait anyway, holding the book up high, and rotating it slowly around the circle so each member could easily see, as I had done, with the previous paintings.

As usual, I was saving Mr. Lee for last. Why not, I convinced myself, he wasn’t paying any attention to me. But I was only partially through with my exercise in show-and-tell, when he loudly blurted out, “You-u-u know-w-w. You-u-u know-w-w,” he was compelled to repeat, struggling desperately for coherence. “You-u-u know-w-w,” he cried again and again, ad infinitum, it seemed, sputtering and gasping.

I kept my eyes fixed on the task before me, afraid to acknowledge this embarrassing attempt to participate. Yet, I could sense him drawing nearer, tentatively in the beginning, inching forward from his temporary outpost on the left of the circle. Then, without warning, he wheeled the chair vigorously at us, head-on, the heavy metal rungs threatening to crash into the book-laden table.

Reflexively, I stuck out my hands to obstruct his determined momentum. But miraculously he caught himself just before impact. Whatever was Mr. Lee trying to accomplish? For the first time, he was looking directly at me—boldly, with evident confidence, or was it actually arrogance? He motioned me rather grandly to bring the Cezanne self-portrait closer for his special perusal.

“I’m an artist,” he announced clearly and without hesitation. “I’m an artist,” he declared, each of the three words, whole and intact, unbroken by stammering or inhibition. “And,” he continued, pointing derisively at the Cezanne self-portrait, “I can tell you right now, I would never put those signs in the background.”

For a moment I forgot entirely about Mr. Lee’s disability and his recent strokes. How dare this man—this mere mortal—criticize the great Cezanne, the god of artists? Was he crazy? Or a total ignoramus? Had he been living in an artistic vacuum throughout his career?

But I was equally astonished by his perfect completion of a full sentence. I knew I had to encourage Mr. Lee further, not condemn him, despite my contrary opinions. He might seem wrong to me, yet I had to help him realize that he could still be right in order to bolster his self-esteem. One careless comment or gesture I was positive, could shatter his emerging ego in an instant.

“What would you do?” I asked him cautiously, anxious not to disrupt the flow of his conversation.

“I just told you. I would get rid of those diamond shaped things in the back,” he barked at me sharply, angered at my apparent slowness to comprehend his point of view. Beside me, I could feel Sarah tensing up, ready I was certain to defend me against him. However, I found myself almost welcoming his antagonistic response for it was proof that Mr. Lee was still a functioning citizen of this earth, not the zombie-like invalid Alcie had wheeled into the Blue Room only a half hour ago.

“Look over there,” Mr. Lee commanded, signaling toward the pile of National Gallery of Art prints. On top, a portrait of Cezanne’s teenage son Paul was quietly contemplating us. He was a substantial figure for an adolescent—his physique solid and heavyset resembling more a statue than a youth of flesh and blood. It seemed as if the artist father had decided to preserve his only beloved child in granite: from the tan hardness of his prominent jaw to the cement gray of his bulky coat and the slate black of his stolid hat.

Yet, despite the austerity of his appearance, Paul, Jr., was an amiable boy, with a pleasant air about him, particularly evident in his good-natured gaze. On the wall behind his son, though, Cezanne had dared to create a decorative background—a rather strange pattern of amoeba-like forms that seemed to drip and swim irregularly across the surface.

I was uncertain of the reason why Cezanne had employed such an unusual motif, but I was 100% sure that Mr. Lee would hate it.

“You see, he did it again!” Mr. Lee fumed, personally affronted by his fellow artist. “But it’s worse this time. Look at all those silly things floating behind the sitter,” he lectured me, waving expansively with his left arm, obviously no longer encumbered by the aftereffects of his stroke. “You definitely don’t need them. As an artist, you want to make the portrait as real and as clear as possible. You don’t want to clutter up the background. I’ve painted hundreds of portraits and I know what people want.”

“Well, Mr. Lee, maybe this portrait is different,” Sarah ventured, attempting to interject an alternative viewpoint. “Maybe because it’s a member of the artist’s family, and he painted it for himself, not a client.”

“No,” Mr. Lee was adamant. “No,” he repeated, practically shouting across the table at Sarah. I could see her and the other residents recoil. He was definitely overexcited. Should I have curtailed his behavior earlier? Had I allowed him to dominate the group for too long?

“Mr. Lee,” I reprimanded him softly.

“It doesn’t m-m-make any dif-f-ere-ence,” he was stumbling now, his words starting to break apart as before. I reached over to touch his shoulder, hoping that physical contact might calm him.

He jumped back, startled by my approach. “I-I-m-m all-l right-t-t,” he muttered, pulling back from me. Then he paused and took a deep breath. “Do-o-o you-u-u, do-o-o you-u-u?” he almost seemed to be begging me, chagrined at his temporary loss of control. “Do you have any more painting that this artist did?” he inquired in a normal cadence, resolved to conduct himself properly again.

From then on, Mr. Lee became our teacher. For the remainder of the class, he instructed us, working his way relentlessly through all the National Gallery of Art prints and the majority of plates in the Cezanne biography. He spoke nonstop for more than a half-hour, with steadiness and restraint, in contrast to his earlier display of histrionics. His newly found students, the other residents, sat mutely listening throughout his discourse. Even Sarah did not utter a sound. I wondered what she was really thinking. Were she and her companions genuinely interested? Or were they being polite? Or, in fact, simply numbed by the unending monologue of their formerly speechless peer.

As for me, I relinquished all authority, deferring to Mr. Lee. Although I might periodically wince at his negative comments about one of the acknowledged leaders of Western art, I gave up my attempts to defend Cezanne.

“Too much clutter,” seemed to be Mr. Lee’s most frequent criticism of the portraits and still lifes, while he judged Cezanne’s landscapes as “not interesting enough”—a condition Mr. Lee felt could be rectified by “adding a few people or some birds.” Occasionally he pronounced a painting or two as “not bad,” but overall Cezanne’s works were “crowded” or “too busy.” “Remember,” he emphasized to us innumerable times, “it’s very important to have a clear picture.”

Mr. Lee was still lecturing us when Alice returned to wheel him to lunch. “Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee,” she called out with her usual effusiveness, as she ran over to him,” Mr. Lee, have you been talking all this time?” she laughed, both relieved and delighted.

“Just a little,” he responded, looking away in embarrassment as Alice squeezed him closer. “Ju-s-t a-lit-tle.”


*Note: Mr. Lee would soon start drawing and painting again; the nursing home actually set up a small studio for him. As a result, The Washington Post would send a reporter out who wrote an article on Mr. Lee’s return to art. Soon after, he received a letter congratulating him from a former client, a member of royalty and former actress who had had her portrait with her daughter done by him years before. Mr. Lee was overjoyed.



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