Visual Arts and Aging
Assessing The Image
An important question to consider when viewing a representation of old age is whether the artist is representing it in a positive or negative light. This will sometimes be quite evident at first sight. Leonardo’s caricatures of age (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) and Ivan Albright’s Fleeting Time Thou Has Made Me Old (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) are obviously and uncompromisingly negative. Many art works give positive interpretations of aging that are equally evident. But many express perspectives on aging with various degrees of ambivalence or mixed nuances, which makes it more challenging to interpret the artist’s specific message about aging. In all cases, when forming a judgment about what an artist is saying about aging in a particular work, it is useful to consider the following questions. Is the overall feeling the artist seems to create about aging primarily negative or positive? Does the artist present aging exclusively as a matter of physical change, or are other, nonphysical, dimensions of aging also represented, such as social relationships, psychological growth or decline, increased knowledge, wisdom or emotional fulfillment? If nonphysical dimensions of aging are suggested, are they shown in a positive or negative light? Are aging persons shown as having any importance for others in society, and if so, what difference are they shown as making to the lives of others? Is the elderly person shown as engaged in a process of spiritual growth, and if so, how? Does the artist use line or color to express ideas, feelings, or attitudes about aging, such as color harmonies or disharmonies, or lines that are either disturbingly tense or reassuringly peaceful? What symbols does the artist use to convey attitudes or ideas about aging?
Formal resources that artists use to communicate about the aging face and body include lines, used to represent and interpret the facial wrinkles of the aging face. Line used in this way can eloquently express many characteristics naturally associated with the aged person, such as burdensome memories and depth of thought (see Dürer’s Saint Jerome, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Self Portrait, both cited above, as examples of this use of line). A parallel use of facial lines to express emotions related to age can be seen in the scarification of many African masks. In typical Chinese masterpieces, line was skillfully used to show the distinctive gestures and postures of the aging human body, whose forms can be poignantly expressive. Color is another formal element artists use to express feelings and attitudes about age. The shiny, cadaverish greys used in Albright’s images of aging express a revulsion toward it, while in Rubens’ portrait of Saint Jerome, the strongly dominant red expresses an upbeat optimism and sense of vitality. Selection of harmonious or disharmonious color schemes can also communicate a lot about an artist’s outlook on age. The sculptor has, in addition, a third dimension created by a plastic medium, which presents the opportunity to go beyond line and organization of areas to raised surfaces and volumes. These, in turn, are used to create the ruggedly textured quality of the aging face, expressing the depth of experience and character associated with age. Rodin’s representations of elderly persons illustrates this approach especially well.
Many images of elderly people are simply portraits, in which recording a particular person’s appearance, and capturing something of that individual’s essential personality, is the goal. But many representations of the elderly occur in the larger context of a story or genre scene. Sometimes the elder pictured in such a scene is the main protagonist, as in the images of Tobit and Anna in paintings depicting that biblical story. But even more often one or more elderly persons appear in an image, but in only a secondary, supportive role. Examples are the old woman who looks on from the sidelines in Rubens’s Samson and Delilah, or the elderly violinist who plays in the background of many of Edgar Degas’s ballerina paintings. Such ‘‘secondary’’ images of aging should not be overlooked or dismissed, for the statement they make about aging is sometimes of great interest and important to the overall meaning of the work. Degas’s old musician, for example, symbolizes the need for old age wisdom, which enables the younger generation to carry on its own life or ‘‘dance.’’
A topic of debate among art scholars is whether artists adopt a different style—often referred to as ‘‘late style’’—as they age. Late style is said to be characterized by greater economy or simplicity of means, whereby a powerful statement is made with relatively little differentiation of detail. Michelangelo is said to have followed such a path of development because his late sculptures are strikingly less complex, yet no less powerful, than his earlier works. The point at issue can be observed by comparing two of his works on the same theme, the pieta, one early (Pieta, c. 1499, Saint Peter’s, Rome) the other late (Pieta, c. 1564, Castillo Sforzesco, Milan). The same evolution of style has been said to characterize Kathe Kollwitz’s artistic development, and can be seen by comparing her early and late self-portraits.
PATRICK L. MCKEE
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