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
Chapter 4, Part I
My encounter with Sarah marked the real beginning of the course for me as a teacher. I was uncertain of my impact on the residents. A number of them seemed appreciative, but others appeared impassive, unengaged, Interspersed among their more vocal companions, these individuals sat quietly, often stone-faced, unrelenting, as if in a perpetual state of silence. Only occasionally did I sense any reaction–just the slightest movement, a twinge or response in an extended hand, a garbled, muffled word, the flickering of an eye.
Although the activities director assured me of my popularity with the group, I had my doubts. I was still definitely groping for my way, even undecided about the content and direction of my classes. I tentatively charted the historical route I would follow–from Impressionists through Modern, or at least as far as Matisse and Klee–each week choosing a different painter, represented by my nascent library of slides purchased in installments from the National Gallery of Art.
Renoir, Monet, and Degas were the first artists I presented, Impressionism providing me with the easiest path to the hearts and minds of the residents. Even the most withdrawn participant, no matter what the degree of illness or disability, could not resist the sensationalist style, its pleasurable subjects.
For one full hour, I engulfed, surrounded, bombarded them with Impressionist works of art. Miniature worlds of the brightest colors, intense, scintillating, vibrating light. Meadows, rivers, skies, flowers, picnics and boatings. Voluptuous, velvety women and sweet, decorative children, floating ballerinas and cantering horses.
I literally tried to transport them en masse into the garden of Monet, the parlor of Renoir, the theater set of Degas. I placed them there, completely, inside that canvas, without regard to time and place–which were irrelevant. Only the azure blues of a summer horizon, the coy smile of a jeweled lady, the electric swirling of a dance mattered.
I used all the skills and techniques of communication I could master. Standing always in front, directly next to the screen and its image. I pointed, gestured, exclaimed, in an urgent display that would otherwise find embarrassing. I fantasized, too; the forces of imagination, drama, and exaggeration were absolutely mandatory to my success. The reds my audience and I were experiencing together through the paintings were more than mere, earthly red; they were deeper, richer, stronger, bolder. Light was luminous, radiant–space infinite, vast. And ordinary mortals–men, women, and children–were unforgettable creatures of beauty, elegance, and charm.
The Artist’s Garden, The Dance, Girl with a Watering Can, Madame Henriot, Boat on the Seine, Woman with a Cat–20, 30 successive images in one session were transferred effortlessly, magically, by that wonder of modern technology, my slide projector, from the walls of the National Gallery to the Blue Room.
I sometimes felt more like a cheerleader than a teacher, coaching rather than instructing my aging class. I urged, exhorted, cajoled all of the members to talk–to me, to each other, to the painting in front of them if they preferred. The pace might be slower than with younger, mentally quicker generations, the pauses and hesitations more pronounced, but the responses of those residents who did contribute were generally valid, thoughtful, and at times profound.
I was personally uncovering my own rhythm and method of education. Not the polished, sonorous performances of my best college professors and lecturers, whose examples I still admired, but an approach I had never imagined. At best, effective, pragmatic, Machiavellian–I would employ nearly any means to achieve my end–and at worse, undignified, crude, and a little silly.
How different from my lofty expectations in Florence, just a few winters before. Those daily ritualistic trips to the Uffizi Gallery, the supreme museum in a city treasured for its art. A sacred realm to me, a former palace of marble floors and airy corridors, the upper level encircling one of the most precious depositories of the Renaissance period. Poised high above the Arno, its outer arcade of spacious, illuminated windows allowed me effortlessly to walk the perimeter of history. Below me unfolded the brown and red jumble of Florentine buildings and churches, distant yet close, in the soft graying light. The rest of the world seemed just beyond—Rome, Venice, Athens, Istanbul–stretching even further into the depths of antiquity and the Middle East.
A wave of eternity often enclosed me when I looked upon this view—an unsettling sense of being simultaneously exhilarated and lost, elated and desolate, as if inextricably weighted in the past of dead centuries. But as I turned away, moving into the inner rooms of the gallery itself, I was safe again.
COMING TUESDAY: THE PAINTING AS A WORLD, PART II—THE WORLD OF FLORENCE’S UFFIZI AND DISCOVERING THE MEANING OF ART
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girl with a Watering Can, 1876, oil on canvas, Chester Dale 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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