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Visual Arts and Aging - Symbolism

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As this example of the Chinese sages and the waterfall makes clear, it is difficult to understand what painters and sculptors have wanted to say about the experience of human aging without knowing something about symbols. These artists do not communicate what they wish to say about aging in words, as writers might do, so they often use instead the language of symbols. For example, bridges, doorways, windows and gates often appear in paintings of older adults to symbolize the aging person’s transition to a new stage of life, old age. Many of the works cited above feature this symbolism. In many of his representations of the story of Tobit, for example, Rembrandt shows the old blind man waiting by or walking toward a doorway or window. Similarly, the elderly gentleman in Shen Chou’s Walking With a Staff is shown approaching a bridge that crosses over a turbulent stream. Another common symbol in visual representations of older adults is the musical instrument, usually a string instrument such as the guitar or the violin. Such an image shows an older person creating harmony from separate sounds that individually have no meaning. But this in turn is a symbol of the aging person’s ability to integrate disparate aspects of life into one understandable whole, which is a kind of wisdom. Often the symbolic old musician is shown as blind, recalling Plato’s dictum that as outer vision weakens with age, inner vision (wisdom) grows. Of course many symbols of time and its passage are used in images of elderly people, including clocks, hourglasses, and used-up candles. The abstract form of the circle is sometimes used to symbolically express a feeling of life having come to completeness or to full closure. A striking example is the composition of Rembrandt’s Artist’s Mother (Art History Museum, Vienna), but the symbolism is The painting Rembrandt’s Mother Seated at a Table by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (Historical Picture Archive/Corbis). widely used. To understand representations of aging by artists outside one’s own culture, it is useful to know something of the special symbolism of that culture. For example, the elderly people who appear so frequently in Chinese paintings are often shown with cranes, peaches, or pine trees, all familiar symbols in Chinese culture of late adulthood. Finally, the most potent symbol in an art work depicting an elderly person is often the image of the elderly person itself. For the elderly face, body and gestures are themselves ‘‘mythic’’ for us, in the sense that they powerfully convey important meanings such as endurance, courage, inner strength, and vulnerability.

For purposes of discerning what an artist is saying specifically about aging in a particular work, it is useful to distinguish between the story being illustrated (Isaac blessing Jacob, or Saint Jerome’s retreat to a desert hermitage) and the artist’s specific manner of representing the elderly person who appears in the work. To appreciate how distinct these things are, a good exercise is to study the difference of treatment of the same elderly person in the same story. One might compare, for example, Raemerswael’s Saint Jerome in His Study (Musee des Beaux Artes, Antwerp), and Massy’s Saint Jerome (Art History Museum, Vienna). Both artists are offering creative images of the same events in the life of the same aging man, yet the meanings they see in these things are very different.

Visual Arts and Aging - Assessing The Image [next] [back] Visual Arts and Aging - Portrayals

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