Aging Clin. Exp. Res. 4: 93-101, 1992
Successful aging and artistic creativity Until a short while ago, gerontologists mostly studied the pathological aspects of aging, but in recent years their attention has addressed "successful aging", meaning the best way for the elderly to adapt to age-related physical, psychological and social problems (1). In fact, there are more and more elderly people who spend the final years of their life in conditions of total wellbeing, and are either free of the more common age-associated disturbances and signs of maladjustment, or perhaps able to tolerate them better than their peers. These positive examples in the past were considered exceptions without any significance, but today they are being evaluated and studied with attention because they demonstrate that old age should not be viewed as an irreversible process of decline that is inevitably linked with illness and disability. These examples also show that there are various ways to grow old, and many allow a good quality of life to be maintained. Based on the premise that old age is not necessarily synonymous with regression and decay, gerontologists have started to research effective strategies to prevent and limit age-related pathological symptoms. This preventive work has several aspects: from a physical point of view, it aims at eliminating risk factors and reaching an early diagnosis of cardiovascular, metabolic and neoplastic disease; from a social point of view, the goal is to keep the elderly person in the environment where he feels he belongs for as long as possible. With regard to the psychological sphere, much effort is being made to promote new interests to surrogate emotional losses, and represent a valid reason to live. While the significance of an operation aimed at correcting physical, social and environmental problems is clear enough, it is, however, extremely difficult to propose new interests and forms of enjoyment to
the elderly; indeed, with the passing of years, many tend to crystallize their value systems and habits, thus creating rigid behaviour patterns, and resistance to change. In the long run, this lack of flexibility and incapacity to adjust to changing times has a destabilizing effect, and it follows that some elderly persons ultimately feel like survivors in a world that they perceive as increasingly more foreign and devoid of sense. However, if we examine those privileged subjects who have fully achieved a "successful aging", we see that most of them have traits in common. First of all, they are often in good physical shape, and have maintained or even improved their economic and social position; secondly, and most importantly, a study of their biographies from a psychological point of view discloses that they are essentially characterized by a creative attitude that prompts them to explore new paths, while conserving previous interests and their true individuality. It seems, therefore, that creativity is an important protective factor against the loss of roles and motivation that often accompany old age (2). This does not mean that all people who age in a positive way have a creative personality, in certain cases, individuals who are more methodical and lacking in imagination can actually be advantaged, compared to those endowed with creativity. Nevertheless, in most situations, creativity represents a resource rather than an impediment, and can help an aged person to adjust positively towards the often traumatic changes that occur with the passage of time. Unfortunately, however, this precious gift tends to vanish with the years, and the more it becomes necessary in the aging process, the more rarely is it found in the elderly. Indeed, the prevailing opinion is that of all the intellectual faculties, creativity deteriorates the earliest. Al-
Correspondence: F.M. Antonini, M.D., Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics, University of Firenze, Viale Pieraccini 18, 50139 Firenze, Italy.
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most inherent in children, if not stimulated it tends to decrease in the adult, and disappear completely in old age , with the exception of a few, particularly gifted individuals. The reasons for this decline are still not clear; a cultural tradition, which goes back to the Bible and the classical world, tends to assign the gift of wisdom, prudence and moderation to old age, whereas creativity is attributed above all to the young, whose impatience and impulsiveness drive them to experiment new solutions and assert them against the status quo . Thus, old age in itself would seem incompatible with creative activity. Even the cultural heritage that is gained over the years might have an inhibiting effect on creative ability; a romantic concept, that is Widespread even today, holds that acquired culture ultimately penalizes the imagination of the individual, condemning him to a rigid and repetitive formalism. Experience therefore would not constitute a source of inspiration for new ideas, but would only consolidate a series of habits and customs. Previous studies to evaluate changes in creative ability in the course of old age have given contrasting results. Lehman (3) used quantitative historiometric methods to analyze the output of the most outstanding individuals in the literary, artistic and scientific fields, and demonstrated that creativity reaches its apex between 30 and 40 years of age, and then progressively declines. Dennis (4) instead, found greater creative longevity in a vast survey of eminent individuals, while a more recent study (5) tended to confirm Lehman's thesis. To measure the variations in creative ability with age , several surveys were conducted on population samples using appropriate tests (6-8); all showed that more elderly subjects had lower average scores than younger persons, and hence would have lower creative aptitudes . Nevertheless, such research is not always reliable, because it compares individuals of different generations, who may not be exactly comparable in reference to experience and education. A more recent longitudinal-type study (9) obtained completely different results when 52 elderly persons were re-examined 13 years later with the same test ; no significant variation was found in any of the three creative components that were explored (fluency, flexibility and originality). Therefore, in healthy and well moti-
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vated individuals, it is possible that creative faculties remain practically' unchanged in the course of old age. Even if many elderly people show a decline in their creative abilities with time, this is not always a general finding; in certain cases, the acquisition of experience may accompany a loss of originality, in others , an increase in knowledge may instead entail an increase in expressive ability, that reaches its peak in the final years of life. This considerable variation between individuals depends mostly on motivational factors, and in general, only creative attitudes that previously constituted a means of gratification survive. Yet, there exist other reasons for this variation , such as the different types of cultural and educational background, and activities conducted in the past. In specific categories, such as intellectuals, creative ability may remain unaltered for a long time, because their work usually allows greater autonomy and a lesser expenditure of physical energy, compared to manual labour. This is not to say that all elderly creative people possess an important cultural baggage; indeed, many lack one completely, and nevertheless continue to give their best , like certain craftsmen who have no general culture , but are gifted with imagination and a sense of aesthetics, and reach maximum levels of perfection in their last years. On the other hand, old age in some intellectuals is characterized by inhibition and a progressive draining of expression, perhaps due to an excessive tendency for self-criticism, which makes them further doubt their own possibilities. Without doubt, of all the intellectual activities, that of the artist permits a longer period of true creativity, and for some artists this is due to various reasons. First of all, the artistic vocation, like that of religion, allows an elderly person, who feels death is close, to forget earthly cares and enter a fantastic , supernatural world, far removed from anxiety and physical suffering, where he can search for universal aesthetic and spiritual values. Unlike other professionals, the artist does not know retirement and can remain active until death. Moreover, artistic activity makes many concessions for an elderly person; it does not generally require a large amount of physical energy or technology , rarely is the presence of other people necessary, and it can be carried out at home according to a flexible timetable and pace. Finally, it is worth noting that this
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Henri Matisse (1869-1954); Blu Nude IV , Gouache decoupes. Nice, Musee Henri Matisse.
Pierre Bannard (1867-1947); Atelier with mimosa (193946). Paris, Musee National d'Art Modeme Georges Pompiclou.
work is neither competitive nor subordinate, and can be executed in full freedom, responding only to expressive concerns. For all these reasons, certain elderly artists serve as ideal reference points for gerontologists, as they appear to be unscathed by that loss of roles and interests which negatively affects other types of aging. Although any type of artistic activity permits a remarkable creative longevity, the most sensational examples are found in the field of the figurative arts. In fact, almost all the great painters and sculptors who reached old age in acceptable physical condition continued to express themselves at very high levels of quality, and often succeeded in radically renewing their artistic vocabulary. Artists such as Donatello, Bellini, Michelangelo , Titian , El Greco , Rembrandt, Goya , Monet and Picasso
gave their best in their final years, and even prophetically anticipated future stylistic trends; in these extreme attempts at surpassing themselves, they left behind a final message of beauty, and bridged the gap between their own work and the creative experience of generations to come. On the other hand, expression is less continuous in the literary field. Beside the positive examples of Sophocles, who wrote his Oedipus at Colonus at 89 years of age , and Goethe, who completed his final version of Faust at 80, there are also several instances of sterility or mediocrity, such as Shaw, who wrote some very tedious comedies, or Manzoni, who limited himself to critical and historical assays. Then there is Verga, who lost all inspiration and spent his final years in silence , interrupted only by outbursts of gloomy and reac-
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tionary pessimism. Old age in the musical world as well has been marked by a wide range of results. Great composers such as Haydn, Listz, Verdi, Richard Strauss, and Stravinski continued to be inspired right to the end , but Rossini stopped composing almost completely, while Cherubini and Sibelius, in a sense , outlived themselves, and wearily put forth the same ideas of their youth. The remarkable cases of creative longevity among great musicians are rendered even more extraordinary by the fact that with old age there usually is a decline in the more complex fine motor abilities; thanks to continual practice, artists such as Rubinstein, Arrau, Horowitz, Backhaus, Segovia, and Casals succeeded in maintaining their manual agility to a large extent, and compensated their slight loss of speed and precision with a greater depth of expression. There is still no convincing explanation for the fact that figurative artists usually maintain their creative ability longer than writers and composers. Simone de Beauvoir perhaps singled out one of the reasons for this difference: with regard to elderly painters she wrote : "Compared with writers, they are very fortunate: they are not nourished by themselves, they live in the present , and not in the past. For them the world unceasingly provides colours, light, forms and flashes of inspiration" (10). Henry Moore expressed a similar opinion at 80 years of age, declaring in an interview: "One finds that the best artists complete their greatest works in maturity. I think that the visual arts are more connected to real human experience than other arts and sciences. Painting and sculpture largely deal with the external world and never really finish." For Kenneth Clark, the creative longevity of figurative artists is due to the fact that their activity brings with it a pleasure that is not only intellectual, but also material; ''The painter is dealing with something outside himself, and is positively drawing strength from what he sees. The act of painting is a physical act , and retains some element of physical satisfaction. No writer enjoys the movement of his pen , still less the click of his typewriter. But in the actual laying on of a touch of colour, or in the stroke of a mallet on a chisel, there is a moment of self-forgetfulness" (11). Another element that favours figurative artists is that they can visualize their work simultaneously, unlike writers
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and musicians from whom a greater mnemonic effort is required . Moreover, an old person with only a few more years to live is more likely to succeed in completing a painting , than a novel or a symphony, both of which require much elaboration. At the age of 96 years, Michele Cascellatold how he began a new painting every morning and finished it by evening. Thus, this extremely prolific painter, who could finish a painting in such a short time, found a source of serenity and equilibrium in this creative daily cycle, and succeeded in dedicating himselfto the pleasure of art right until the end , without yielding to feelings of anguish and uncertainty about the future . We analyzed the senile output of major painters and sculptors from the Renaissance to the present, referring to the most authoritative and recent essays written about each one (12, 13). We selected artists according to their longevity and importance, and endeavoured to include all the major figurative artists who died after 70 years of age ; Reni, Rembrandt, Cezanne and Paul Klee, who died between the ages of 60 and 70 years, were also considered because they showed unmistakable signs of a radical expressive turning point in their final works. This study was not conducted with absolute scientific rigour, since it is virtually impossible to draw final and objective conclusions in the field of aesthetic and expressive values, which are always subject to changes in individual taste and in cultural fashions . We solely attempted to document the extraordinary creative longevity of these artists, from a quantitative and qualitative point of view; indeed, with the exception of biographical anecdotes, this phenomenon has received an inadequate amount of attention, not only from gerontologists but also art historians. We examined 79 artists in chronological order, from Donatello (1386-1466) to Jean Dubuffet (1901 -1985) . Almost all of them remained active until the final years of their lives, with the exception of painters such as Piero della Francesca, Rosalba Carriera, Honore Daumier and Mary Cassat, who were forced to suspend their activity because of serious visual defects. Among the painters who did not suffer from illnesses affecting their expressive ability, there are only a few cases of decline or loss of artistic quality; this
Renoir in his atelier, Cagnes 1910.
Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789); Self-portrait at 70 years . Geneva, Musee d'Art et d'Histoire.
group includes Signorelli, Perugino, Jordaens, Longhi, Fragonard, David, Munch, Ensor, De Chirico and Carra. Nevertheless, with the exception of Fragonard, who stopped painting completely in the lastten years of his life, the others maintained a good level of quality despite a tendency for repetition, and a decrease in their creative inspiration. Therefore, in the case of these artists, we cannot speak of senile decline, but only of a slight decrease in quality, compared to the extremely high levels of expression they reached in previous years. The others, who make up the major part of the group we examined, reached old age with their creative potential intact, and often succeeded in achieving novel and original results (14). Their finalyears of life were distinguished by
a precise late style or, in the words of Kenneth Clark, by an "old age style". Furthermore, even if these artists lived in distant times and had completely different styles, we can isolate certain characteristics in their late work that recur with particular frequency. From a stylistic point of view, the outlines of the figures become softer, and the forms progressively insubstantial, similar to shadows without bodies. With this tendency towards formal dissolution , the final works of certain artists anticipate future trends: Michelangelo's Pieta Rondanini , considered a rough draft by his contemporaries, is today hailed by the critics as one of the greatest masterpieces of all times; after two centuries Hals'expressive power was rediscovered and re-evaluated by the Impressionists; the soft,
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muted painting style of Reni's final works has only been considered and appreciated in this century; in Turner's increasingly chaotic and indistinct forms, all bathed in dazzling light, we now discern a revolutionary anticipation of the modern avantgarde. Moreover, we can perceive a general search for compositional unity and simplicity, in preference to technical virtuosity, in the attempt to leave an essential and definitive message. For Rudolph Arnheim (15), the principal element of that which he termed "late style" is exactly this passage from a hierarchical concept to a vision united by diverse compositional elements. The best example of this concept is Titian's final Crowning with thorns, where we see that the figures of Christ and the soldiers seem to merge in a pale and spectral light which in turn creates a dramatic atmosphere. In the late work of Titian, as well as other painters, the unifying factor is light, which becomes the protagonist of the entire composition, and determines its emotional tone. Light gives relief to the figures, and renders them part of the same atmosphere by transforming spatial colour into tonal colour, that bursts into the scene and animates the bodies. Tintoretto's magical nocturnal light predicts the imminent completion of a miracle ; El Greco's cold and sharp light is completely unreal, and seems joined to earth by sidereal spaces; Rembrandt envelopes his figures in a golden halo, while Goya's Milk-seller is illuminated by the morning light, presenting hope for the future. In a television interview given at the age of 90, Virgilio Guidi confessed that only in his old age could he transform his subjects with light. Colour as well has an important role in the merging of diverse compositional elements that takes place in the final works of great painters. Several, such as Tintoretto, Titian, Reni, Lorrain, Turner and Monet, tend with time to match and harmonize different colour softenings to acquire a similar tone through the effect of light. However, colour is not always used to reproduce external reality, but instead becomes a means to represent a state of the soul. In his old age , Matisse succeeded in showing us his in-exhaustible will to live and his love of nature with the pure and luminous colours of his "papiers decoupes". The fact that certain elderly artists ex-
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perimented successfully with hitherto unattempted expressive techniques, and represented subjects never before dealt with is clear proof of their extraordinary innovative capacities. Liotard had painted portraits all his life, but devoted himself with excellent results to the still life when over 80. Chardin did the opposite, beginning with the still life in oil, in his old age he moved on to the pastels of his magnificent self-portraits. Matisse tended more and more to detach himself from painting, and in his last years achieved extremely elegant results with his stylized silhouettes made from paper cut-outs. At the age of 75 the Japanese painter Hokusai eloquently described his continual yearning for renewal and perfection: "All I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. At 73 I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees , birds , fish and insects. Consequently, when I am 80, I shall have made still more progress. At 90 , I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100 I shall certainly have reached a marvellous stage; and when I am 110, everything I do , be it a dot or a line, will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word ". In reference to expressive content, Kenneth Clark writes that drama , pessimism, introversion and a distrust of reason are the principal characteristics of the "old age style", and the old age of great artists is solitary, full of suffering and dissatisfaction with results. There is indeed a dramatic intensity and a tragic vision of life in 00natello 's Magdalen , Michelangelo 's Pieia Rondanini and Poussin's Universal Flood. These elements were not present in the works of their youth. In addition, the biographies of Michelangelo , Reni , Poussin, Goya and Monet reveal that their last years were marked by periods of severe depression in which they forswored their own abilities. Nevertheless, artists who expressed just the opposite sentiments in their final works also abound; for example, the delightful Bellini Madonnas, the gentle Lorrain landscapes, or Renoir 's young girls bursting with vitality. Goya, who had reached the depths of despair in the horrors of his Black Paintings, before his death gave humanity a final message of hope with his splendid Milk-seller of Bordeaux . Another characteristic that Clark attributes to the "old age
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style" is the tendency to bestow images with symbolic meaning; these images are not ends in themselves, but rather contain philosophic principles or transcendental ideas. Having reached old age , great artists usually no longer seek fame or wealth; they ponder the most deep-felt problems of existence, and express the fruits of this thought with an allegorical language that is not readily interpreted because it is born from inner suffering. The final masterpieces of Mantegna, Titian, Poussin, Goya , Turner, Fattori , Homer and Kokoschka sum up the great questions that have always tormented mankind: their powerful images, loaded with interior resonance, symbolically represent life that is opposed by death, force that crushes the individual, solitude and incommunicability, the senselessness of existence that threatens every aspiration. At times, this profound meditation on man 's destiny leads certain artists to rediscover the value of religion, and clear signs of this conversion can be found in their works. In the mystical ecstasy and ascetical fervour of Michelangelo's final Pieta all forms of earthly ambition and bodily pleasure are forsaken; in Lotto's moving Presentation to the Tem ple , the misery and precariousness of the human condition are depicted , and the only salvation is the intervention of Divine Providence. By comparing religious works executed in youth with those of old age, it is evident that many artists pass from an impeccable , detached style to one of major emotional participation. Theirs is a personal faith tightly bound to a new interpretation of suffering as they tend to see themselves in the death agony of others within the greater drama of Christ's passion. Among the modern painters, we find signs of this sincere religious passion above all in Roualt's old age, but they are also present in Matisse, whose ceramics and stained glass windows in the chapel at Vence bear images of utmost Christian purity. The mysticism of these artists can be set against the erotic vitality of Ingres, Renoir, Boldini and Picasso; their last nudes speak of a powerful and inexhaustible desire for life and love. Here artistic creation serves old age as a substitute for what has been lost; faced with the death of loved ones and a decrease in sexual potency, the artist seeks to evoke images on which he can pour his unsatisfied impulses. This ability to
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Francisco Goya (1746-1828) ; Aun Aprendo (182 4-28 ). Madrid, Prado .
transfer an emotional investment in real subjects to imaginary creations is one of the best compensating mechanisms that art may offer an aging person. The late works of many great painters contain a large number of self-portraits; this preference is not casual, and most likely resides in the fact that many artists feel a compelling need to make a final confession at the end of their careers and leave an authentic testimony of themselves to posterity. With the expressive power of the selfportrait, not only do they succeed in depicting their own physical appearance, but they also communicate hitherto unexpressed desires and a heritage of experience and sensations accumulated in the course of a long life. If we compare self-portraits made in old age with those made in youth by artists such as Rembrandt, Liotard, Ingres, Boldini, Fattori and Picasso, all show an important change in style: from a formal point of
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view, portraits painted in youth are more meticulous, while those of old age are often executed with a less perfect technique by an unsteady hand . However, with regard to expressive content, the immediacy, originality and ability to convey powerful and endless emotion, which so distinguish the later works, cannot be found in the earlier ones. From a gerontological perspective, the most interesting aspect of the last years of certain artists is the manner in which they have confronted often serious and disabling disease . Neither pain nor physical handicap were obstacles, and they continued to create masterpieces of outstanding value. Their creative energies never diminished; indeed, the onset of disease induced them to follow new expressive paths. For example, Renoir was confined to a wheelchair because of a severe form of rheumatism , and Monet was almost blinded by cataracts. Looking at Monet's splendid water lilies in chronological order, one can see that his decreasing eyesight favoured a progressive breaking down of the form , and a growing tendency towards the monochrome , linked to his sensitivity for variations and shadings of light. These late works place Monet among the precursors of abstract art , and demonstrate that the physical decline of an elderly artist does not automatically produce a decrease in creativity, but can actually foster a radical stylistic renewal. Also of interest for the gerontologist are the attitudes of certain artists when death is near. Hokusai , who spent his life investigating the mysteries of nature, regretted only not being able to continue the search. A similar sentiment is found in the final words of Corot, who complained that he had not yet learned to paint the sky. Just before dying, Bonnard completed his final masterpiece, the Almond Tree in Flower, and confided to a friend: "The light was never more beautiful". The predominant sentiment in these examples is not the fear of death , but rather a love of art and a regret for not being able to continue to express it; all maintained a thirst for knowledge and a creative attitude to the end , and their old age was not a time of decay , but a happy period of study and search for perfection. In one of his late drawings entitled, Aun aprendo ("l am still learning "), Goya portrayed a
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stooped, emaciated old man with a long white beard and a wild glance, supported by two walking canes. There is a universal meaning in this idealized self-portrait; even extreme old age and disabling disease cannot stop man from deepening his knowledge, and reaching new and unforeseen goals. The final years of the lives of great painters and sculptors constitute important examples for all individuals, artistically gifted or not , who are at the threshold of old age , and desire to spend it in a better spiritual condition, using every remaining opportunity in the best way possible. We must refer to these ideal models in order to establish the basis of an education for the elderly (or "geragogy") aimed at conserving their individuality, and developing their creative resources as much as possible. F.M. Antonini and *8. Magnolfi Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics, University of Firenze, *Geriatric Department, "Misericordia e Dolce" Hospital, Prato, Italy
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