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 chapter is about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
The Painting As A World: The Meaning of Art
Chapter 4, Part II (from April 29)
The warm splendor of the Renaissance awaited me. A panorama of gilded, multi-toned altar pieces overflowing with hosts of madonnas and saints, crowded nativities and ethereal annunciations; restrained, factual portraits of anonymous sitters, wealthy merchants, Medicis, popes and princes; expansive, sweeping representations of wars, mythologies, and allegories–the ultra-renowned Primavera and Birth of Venus by Botticelli actually occupying the same exhibition space. Three hundred years and several generations of Renaissance masters surrounded and encompassed me everyday–the names of Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, symbolizing merely the elite stratum of a massive evolution in human creativity.
I thought I knew so much about art then. I was an encyclopedia of titles, dates, and styles, capable–I assumed–of accurate analysis, comparison and critique, utilizing the newly acquired tools of an art historian. Certainly I was still no scholar in my chosen field, but I possessed an arrogance, even a proprietary, territorial attitude toward each panel and canvas, convinced that only I was worthy of appraising and judging them. Other mere mortals–the tourists and museum guards–I scarcely tolerated, inwardly condemning them for interrupting my enlightened reverie. The former I perceived as a constant, chattering nuisance; the latter as a drab, gray troupe of uniformed Peeping Toms, more intent on surveying me and other visitors than the collection they were hired to protect.
And yet, after the initial rush of aesthetic adrenaline–when the colors, the light, the very essence of painting seem clear and fresh–I would feel oddly empty. Within the first hour of my regular journey through the galleries, I would begin to slow down, disheartened, my mental energy progressively depleted, searching for something that was now missing. So many of the landmarks of Western culture–Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, Michelangelo’s Holy Family, Raphael’s Leo X, which I once faithfully studied as reproductions in my art books–failed to revive or sustain me.
Now the real works of art confronted me, and after a second, I was bored and tired.
By the time I reached the last few rooms, I was ready to go home. Not to my Florentine address, but all the way back to the United States. Why was I here, at this moment, strangers and paintings my sole companions? What was the purpose of it? Or meaning? I was homesick and I didn’t care anymore. I was lonely for my family and friends, for conversation and love.
Art was cold, inhuman, like the hard marble surface I was standing on or the drafty chill that penetrated the galleries and my thin skin. But I would proceed forward, as if on automatic pilot, toward the farthest reaches of the Uffizi, into a kind of outback of Post-Renaissance art. My final destination was a usually peaceful corner of the Baroque, a gathering of seventeenth-century paintings relegated to a place of benign obscurity, separate from the rest of the museum. Within its environs hung the works of the Italian master of that era (and reputed to be a criminal as well), Caravaggio, famed for his sharp, photographic realism–at times melodramatic, sinister, violent. In one painting, a terrifying Medusa, her head seething in a nest of twisting, coiling snakes, screamed outward, trying to dominate the room with her rage.
I always quickly turned my back on her frenzied image, ultimately seeking the magical portrait that had compelled me to its presence. A face, fleshy, layered with the ravages of age and paint, stared hypnotically from within the infinite shadows of the oil background. His brow and cheeks were weathered and creased, etched with the lines and wrinkles of more than 60 years of existence, a man nearer to death than life. A faint mustache, wintry in shade, curled over the edge of his lip, the mouth underneath partially opened.
Was Rembrandt, the Dutch master, about to speak to me? His expression was puzzling, changing and fluctuating in the half-light. Was he amused or skeptical, resigned or reproachful? His right eye peered boldly at me, like the rounded aperture of some mortal cyclops–wise, strong, unwavering in its quest. I was certain that he was measuring me with the solid gaze of both a cynic and believer, challenging me to understand what he long ago had known.
Yet, it wasn’t until I met Sarah that I could grasp the message of Rembrandt’s self-portrait. Her tears that summer evening were really the artist’s eyes reflecting back at me, entreating yet commanding, pulling me like a lifeline into the heart of human creation. I realized then that art is not merely a row of paintings neatly stationed on a museum wall, catalogued and arranged for posterity and the appreciative gaze of connoisseurs and aestheticians. It is a reflection of our common humanity, a universal vision that must be shared by all of us so we may rejuvenate and endure.
COMING THURSDAY: MATISSE—THE ONE AND ONLY
Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, 1478/1481, tempera and oil on poplar panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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