AGING AND POWERFUL MINDS IN HISTORY: ART AND DEMENTIA

The Basque country, straddling the Spanish-French border, has long been regarded a land of mystery. The Basque language is itself unique, unlike any Indo-European language, its origins uncertain. The Basque people are presumed to represent the earliest population of Europe, related to the Celts or possibly even pre-Celtic peoples, a vestige of the tribes inhabiting the continent before the multiple waves of migration and conquest changed its ethnic and linguistic complexion. The Basque country is also more recently known for its volatile, sporadically violent independence movement, although for a tourist this is an abstract notion, and there is no palpable feeling of menace in the air. Quite the contrary, the Basque provincial capital San Sebastian is among the most famous European beach resorts, synonymous with boats, sun, excellent restaurants, and the sybaritic pursuit of the good life. The area is also the home of a unique tradition of monumental sculpture associated in particular with the names of the great Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002) and his lifelong rival Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003).
During my visit to San Sebastian, the conversation over dinner turned toward Chillida, who had died earlier that year at the age of seventy-eight. My hosts, neurologists from the local medical center, were recounting how the famous sculptor had ended his life in their care, in a state of advanced Alzheimer’s dementia. It turns out that Chillida was completely incapacitated during the last year of his life, his mental powers sapped by the disease.
The next morning we drove to the famous Museo Chillida-Leku, a sculpture garden in the nearby village of Zabalaga, which houses the largest collection of works by Chillida. The vast estate is centered on a sixteenth-century barn, converted by Chillida into a residence and surrounded by lush gardens and lawns studded with sculptures. Chillida’s work is monumental and mostly abstract. He used metal, marble, stone, and wood to create nonrepresentational yet highly evocative shapes, a magical fusion of a Cyclopean scale and introverted private moods. As I was strolling among the gigantic forms, I felt that an elusive similarity existed between these contemporary sculptures and Stonehenge. They seemed ageless, inspired by the same muse, or at least by the same lineage of muses. The Basques and the Celts are both direct heirs of the ancient peoples of Europe, pushed to the westernmost fringes of the continent by the invading waves of newcomers. Could it be that their shared history translated into shared artistic sensibilities, transcending the four millennia separating the druids of Stonehenge from the Basques of today, that an ancient tradition found its modern-day expression in the works by Chillida and Oteiza? The thought amused me and created a pleasant buzz in my head as I continued my stroll through the sculpture garden.
And then I began to notice that some of the plaques next to the sculptures, in fact quite a few, bore the dates in the mid-nineties, late nineties, and even the year 2000. As we already know, Alzheimer’s disease does not assault one all of a sudden. Quite the contrary, it is a gradual decline, a slippage into mental oblivion that unfolds over years, not months. Someone who was in a state of advanced dementia in 2001, as reportedly Chillida was, certainly had to be already affected by the disease process in the late nineties, and probably as early as in the mid-nineties. Yet here I was surrounded with the masterpieces, which every curator of every major museum in the world would give an arm and a leg to have . . . created by an artist most likely suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. When I shared my chronological observations with my hosts, they seemed as perplexed as I was. We left it at that, but the image of an aging master, losing his memory but not the secrets of his craft and triumphing over his illness through his art, at least for a while, kept haunting me for months after the visit.
Eduardo Chillida and his poignant story find a counterpart in a North American contemporary and fellow artist, Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). A Dutchman who came to the United States in 1926 at the age of twenty-two and made it his home, de Kooning epitomized twentieth-century American art like no one else. His career as a painter and occasional sculptor spanned three quarters of a century. De Kooning was a true original who helped forge a new direction in painting. Being an original was the essence of his identity. “Nothing grows under big trees,” he once told a student who was quizzing him as to why he had never studied with a famous artist. He himself became that “big tree,” which in defiance of his own admonition spurred the growth of a whole new school. From an early infatuation with cubism, through the transitional stages of painting, by his own account, increasingly abstract “quiet men” and then “wild women,” de Kooning moved on to become a founder of what has since become known as “abstract expressionism.”
Sometime in the late 1970s, de Kooning’s memory loss became evident to those around him. As is usually the case, his amnesia affected his memory for relatively recent events and spared the memories of the distant past, a phenomenon well-known to neuropsychologists and neurologists under the cumbersome name “the temporal gradient of retrograde amnesia.” But even more distant memories may have faded as the disease progressed. His biographer Hayden Herrera recounts an episode in which de Kooning was unable to recognize an old and close friend of many years. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease eventually followed.
But the old master continued to paint, spending all his days in the studio, sometimes finishing several paintings a week. “A finished painting is a reminder of what not to do tomorrow,” he was quoted to quip at the age of eighty-one. (His memory may have eroded, but his wit was undiminished.)
De Kooning’s art continued to evolve even toward the end of his career. In the 1980s his brushstrokes broadened and then -toward the late 1980s his paintings began to acquire what his biographer and friend Edvard Lieber called “hyperactive forms”—spare, brightly colored, wavy curves. De Kooning, well into his eighties, was aware of the change: “I’m back to a full palette with off-toned colors. Before it was about knowing what I didn’t know. Now, it’s about not knowing what I know.” This change was more than a change in style. For de Kooning, his work had always been a means of comprehending a deeper meaning of things and of his own experience, and not merely forging a set of formalisms. “Style is a fraud. … To desire to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety,” de Kooning wrote many years earlier.
So what evolution of de Kooning’s own human experience did the changes in his work reflect? What role did the change in his cognition play in the evolution of his art? Was the effect one of decline or one of ascendancy? Or some complex interplay of both?
The change in de Kooning’s work did not elude the art critics. It was regarded as evolution and not as regression, as the ascendancy to a new level of insight and understanding. “The rhythms are more deliberate, meditated even, and the space more open … a new order prevails, a new calm. . . . de Kooning has purified his stroke, and what had been quintessentially sensuous is rendered immaterial, ethereal, a veiled tracing of its physical origins,” wrote David Rosand. “de Kooning, who has never strayed far from nature for long, is closer to it now than ever,” wrote Vivien Raynor in the New York Times.
So here are the stories of two great twentieth-century masters, Eduardo Chillida and Willem de Kooning, who were able to create first-rate art despite the progression of Alzheimer s disease, with its crippling effects on many other aspects of their lives. Before we proceed further with the discussion of what made this possible, let us step back and appreciate the sheer power of the facts themselves, whatever their explanations may be.
*11\302\2*

AGING AND POWERFUL MINDS IN HISTORY: ART AND DEMENTIAThe Basque country, straddling the Spanish-French border, has long been regarded a land of mystery. The Basque language is itself unique, unlike any Indo-European language, its origins uncertain. The Basque people are presumed to represent the earliest population of Europe, related to the Celts or possibly even pre-Celtic peoples, a vestige of the tribes inhabiting the continent before the multiple waves of migration and conquest changed its ethnic and linguistic complexion. The Basque country is also more recently known for its volatile, sporadically violent independence movement, although for a tourist this is an abstract notion, and there is no palpable feeling of menace in the air. Quite the contrary, the Basque provincial capital San Sebastian is among the most famous European beach resorts, synonymous with boats, sun, excellent restaurants, and the sybaritic pursuit of the good life. The area is also the home of a unique tradition of monumental sculpture associated in particular with the names of the great Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002) and his lifelong rival Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003).During my visit to San Sebastian, the conversation over dinner turned toward Chillida, who had died earlier that year at the age of seventy-eight. My hosts, neurologists from the local medical center, were recounting how the famous sculptor had ended his life in their care, in a state of advanced Alzheimer’s dementia. It turns out that Chillida was completely incapacitated during the last year of his life, his mental powers sapped by the disease.The next morning we drove to the famous Museo Chillida-Leku, a sculpture garden in the nearby village of Zabalaga, which houses the largest collection of works by Chillida. The vast estate is centered on a sixteenth-century barn, converted by Chillida into a residence and surrounded by lush gardens and lawns studded with sculptures. Chillida’s work is monumental and mostly abstract. He used metal, marble, stone, and wood to create nonrepresentational yet highly evocative shapes, a magical fusion of a Cyclopean scale and introverted private moods. As I was strolling among the gigantic forms, I felt that an elusive similarity existed between these contemporary sculptures and Stonehenge. They seemed ageless, inspired by the same muse, or at least by the same lineage of muses. The Basques and the Celts are both direct heirs of the ancient peoples of Europe, pushed to the westernmost fringes of the continent by the invading waves of newcomers. Could it be that their shared history translated into shared artistic sensibilities, transcending the four millennia separating the druids of Stonehenge from the Basques of today, that an ancient tradition found its modern-day expression in the works by Chillida and Oteiza? The thought amused me and created a pleasant buzz in my head as I continued my stroll through the sculpture garden.And then I began to notice that some of the plaques next to the sculptures, in fact quite a few, bore the dates in the mid-nineties, late nineties, and even the year 2000. As we already know, Alzheimer’s disease does not assault one all of a sudden. Quite the contrary, it is a gradual decline, a slippage into mental oblivion that unfolds over years, not months. Someone who was in a state of advanced dementia in 2001, as reportedly Chillida was, certainly had to be already affected by the disease process in the late nineties, and probably as early as in the mid-nineties. Yet here I was surrounded with the masterpieces, which every curator of every major museum in the world would give an arm and a leg to have . . . created by an artist most likely suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. When I shared my chronological observations with my hosts, they seemed as perplexed as I was. We left it at that, but the image of an aging master, losing his memory but not the secrets of his craft and triumphing over his illness through his art, at least for a while, kept haunting me for months after the visit.Eduardo Chillida and his poignant story find a counterpart in a North American contemporary and fellow artist, Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). A Dutchman who came to the United States in 1926 at the age of twenty-two and made it his home, de Kooning epitomized twentieth-century American art like no one else. His career as a painter and occasional sculptor spanned three quarters of a century. De Kooning was a true original who helped forge a new direction in painting. Being an original was the essence of his identity. “Nothing grows under big trees,” he once told a student who was quizzing him as to why he had never studied with a famous artist. He himself became that “big tree,” which in defiance of his own admonition spurred the growth of a whole new school. From an early infatuation with cubism, through the transitional stages of painting, by his own account, increasingly abstract “quiet men” and then “wild women,” de Kooning moved on to become a founder of what has since become known as “abstract expressionism.”Sometime in the late 1970s, de Kooning’s memory loss became evident to those around him. As is usually the case, his amnesia affected his memory for relatively recent events and spared the memories of the distant past, a phenomenon well-known to neuropsychologists and neurologists under the cumbersome name “the temporal gradient of retrograde amnesia.” But even more distant memories may have faded as the disease progressed. His biographer Hayden Herrera recounts an episode in which de Kooning was unable to recognize an old and close friend of many years. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease eventually followed.But the old master continued to paint, spending all his days in the studio, sometimes finishing several paintings a week. “A finished painting is a reminder of what not to do tomorrow,” he was quoted to quip at the age of eighty-one. (His memory may have eroded, but his wit was undiminished.)De Kooning’s art continued to evolve even toward the end of his career. In the 1980s his brushstrokes broadened and then -toward the late 1980s his paintings began to acquire what his biographer and friend Edvard Lieber called “hyperactive forms”—spare, brightly colored, wavy curves. De Kooning, well into his eighties, was aware of the change: “I’m back to a full palette with off-toned colors. Before it was about knowing what I didn’t know. Now, it’s about not knowing what I know.” This change was more than a change in style. For de Kooning, his work had always been a means of comprehending a deeper meaning of things and of his own experience, and not merely forging a set of formalisms. “Style is a fraud. … To desire to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety,” de Kooning wrote many years earlier.So what evolution of de Kooning’s own human experience did the changes in his work reflect? What role did the change in his cognition play in the evolution of his art? Was the effect one of decline or one of ascendancy? Or some complex interplay of both?The change in de Kooning’s work did not elude the art critics. It was regarded as evolution and not as regression, as the ascendancy to a new level of insight and understanding. “The rhythms are more deliberate, meditated even, and the space more open … a new order prevails, a new calm. . . . de Kooning has purified his stroke, and what had been quintessentially sensuous is rendered immaterial, ethereal, a veiled tracing of its physical origins,” wrote David Rosand. “de Kooning, who has never strayed far from nature for long, is closer to it now than ever,” wrote Vivien Raynor in the New York Times.So here are the stories of two great twentieth-century masters, Eduardo Chillida and Willem de Kooning, who were able to create first-rate art despite the progression of Alzheimer s disease, with its crippling effects on many other aspects of their lives. Before we proceed further with the discussion of what made this possible, let us step back and appreciate the sheer power of the facts themselves, whatever their explanations may be.*11\302\2*

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