October 12, 2012

More on "The Art of Aging"

I started this week with a description of the memorial celebration for my dear friend Lili Crane, who died at age 94 this past July. I began with this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

Beautiful young people are accidents of nature;
beautiful old people are works of art.

Lili was a priceless work of art.

I'll end the week with a post about John Lane's wonderful book, The Art of Ageing. He was a Brit born in 1930, a year after me. Painter, writer and educationalist, he was also chairman of the Dartington Hall Trust, founding director of Beaford Arts Centre, and instrumental in the creation of Schumacher College.

His delightfully honest little book is the best I've read about the realities and rewards of old age. It ends as Lane remembers Pierre Bonnard, an artist who spent the Second World War holed up at home in the south of France: 
His was a simple, unpretentious life, but towards its end one saddened by deep sorrow. The deaths of some of his closest friends, followed by that of his beloved wife, brought him loneliness and great sadness. He also suffered from the cold and shortage of petrol, food and coal.
Here's a photograph Cartier Bresson took of Bonnard in the winter of 1944. The artist wears a coat to save fuel:


For over a decade, Lane writes, "Bonnard had been painting some mystically beautiful pictures of his garden, culminating in the last of the series, L'Amandier en fleur (The Almond Tree in Flower)." Here it is:


Lane continues:
By the end of the war, already bedridden and too weak to paint, he told his nephew Charles Terrasse to make some alterations. "The green on the patch of ground is wrong. What it needs is yellow...." A few days later, on January 23, 1947, Bonnard died, age 82.
Compared with the suffering others endured during World War II, Bonnard's last years don't seem all that dreadful. Still, Lane considers him a hero. Here's why:
But what inspires me, and what I'd describe as heroic in its own quiet, undemonstrative way, is that this desolate old man remained true to his vision of nature, and that his vision was a celebration of the glory and renewal of life.
L'Amandier en fleur is a painting of fecundity -- an instinctive hymn to life, a song that exults the flush and fertility of nature. Surrounded as he was by the pain and chaos of those terrible years, Bonnard was yet able to leave behind this token of his faith in the future of life on Earth! Celebration, not despair, was his final gift. Redemption, not realism, his ultimate message.
Lane writes that Bonnard's final years offer "a liberating vision of the possibilities of a fulfilling old age -- an age dedicated to giving back, returning, some of the wonder he has been given by the miracle of life.... Bonnard will be remembered as one of the greatest painters of the last century, but it is as an old man facing loneliness and adversity with courage, singleness of purpose and thanksgiving, that his importance now lies. I appreciate him as the model and touchstone for authentic human experience."

Lane's Concluding Words on "The Art of Living" 
Under the heading "Love Your Life," Lane ends his terrific book with these words:
For the whole of the modern period, we have thought of the future in terms of the cultural property of the young. But it may be the old, those who have developed the art of living, whose wisdom has the most to offer.

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