The University Record, April 2, 1996

Museum of Art exhibition explores creative potential in later life 

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Shortly before he died in 1954 at the age of 85, French artist Henri Matisse stopped drawing and painting and started creating cut-out figures of the female form that were bold and simple enough to be archetypal.

Late in life, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Goya also produced some of their most powerful works, although their visions were much darker than Matisse's joy in women.

Wayne State University psychologist Gisela Labouvie-Vief analyzed how the work of some artists changes and deepens with age at the Museum of Art on March 26. Part of an ongoing series on late-life creativity, her talk, "Psychological Transf-ormation and Creative Potential in Later Life," was co-sponsored by the Institute of Gerontology, in conjunction with the Museum's exhibition " ;Bold Strokes: The Inventiveness of Rembrandt's Late Prints."

Once considered a creative wasteland for painters, writers and musicians and a cross to bear for ordinary men and women, old age is now acknowledged to have its own creative force. But Labouvie-Vief emphasized that late-life creative growth is ne ither universal nor automatic. Grandma Moses is not the rule but the exception. And despite his early genius, Pablo Picasso showed no signs of artistic growth in his later years. "After he painted 'Guernica,' when he was about 50, he did nothing in novative," she said, "and some critics feel his work deteriorated, becoming unrelenting in its violence and disgust for women. At the age of 90, he said that women came in one of two types: doormats or goddesses."

Why do some artists continue to grow, creating their most profound works near the end of their lives, while the gifts of others fade or become twisted and bitter? Why do some men and women enjoy their lives in old age, while others feel sorry for themselves and seem to do nothing but demand and complain?

Labouvie-Vief presented various explanations of the inner changes and challenges that accompany aging in ordinary people as well as artists. She also presented a number of studies on the mental and emotional changes that typically occur with age, including findings from her own studies. When she asked adolescents and college students to interpret short fables, their accounts were concrete, literal, action-oriented and detailed. The responses of older adults contained less description and more a nalysis, with the emphasis on motives, inner meanings, intentions and reflections upon the human condition in general.

This late-life turn inward was best described, according to Labouvie-Vief, by psychologist Erik Erikson, who believed the defining conflict of life's last stage is a crisis of integrity versus despair. "This crisis may start as early as the late 40s or early 50s," said Labouvie-Vief "It involves, among other things, deciding whether one will accept one's life as lived; whether one will finally love one's parents and one's children without wishing they were different; or whether on e will give in to feelings of disgust, misanthropy and chronic displeasure, along with a sense that time is too short and alternate roads one could have taken, lives one could have lived, are now irretrievably blocked."

Comparing the late-life work of Matisse and Picasso, Labouvie-Vief concluded, provides a vivid example of how creative genius resolves this crisis in favor of integrity or despair. "Matisse must have been a happy man when he was young," one listener observed.

"You see his art deepening and becoming more joyful with age," Labouvie-Vief responded. "But it's difficult to tell from that whether he was a joyful or miserable person."

When you listen to the music of Franz Schubert, who died at the age of 31, you would think he was the happiest man alive, she added. But the music that sounds suffused with joy was created in a state of intense psychological misery.

The exhibition is on display through April 28. Museum hours are 10 a.m.&endash;5 p.m. Tues.&endash;Sat., 10 a.m.&endash;9 p.m. Thurs., and noon&endash;5 p.m. Sun. Admission is free.