Act Your Age… Appreciating Art

How I ended up sitting in front of Picasso’s painting Science and Charity in a museum in Barcelona, Spain is a bit of a long story. Needless to say, on my travels this month through Europe, I’ve ended up walking along streets crawling with cockroaches and witnessing mountain top views that literally take your breath away. But I digress. Today I’m telling you about my visit to the MuseuPicasso de Barcelona with three of my best friends, including my girlfriend, to see some Picasso paintings.

To be honest, it was not my idea to come to the museum. While seeing some original Picasso paintings intrigued me in the sense that I could later say I had seen the pieces, I had no real appreciation for the art itself. Were I to see the paintings in a book, I would likely flip past them without further thought. However, because I was making an effort to see the things that my travelling companions were interested in and because I write Act Your Age about my experiences trying new (for me at least) activities, I agreed to find the museum. I would not be disappointed.

It was down a cobblestoned alleyway that we found the entrance to the large cold museum. The brick wall to our left opened up into a grand arch and we made our way through. After paying a small admission fee and delivering our bags to the coat check for safe keeping, we entered into the first gallery of the museum.

There were a range of Picasso’s early works in the first rooms. A few oil paintings and a variety of sketches hung on the walls. I walked past them all making empty glances at them. It was almost as if all the paintings were items on my “To Do” list and I had to just check them off by seeing them. Oil painting. Check. Sketch. Check. Portrait. Check. Another sketch. Check.

I wasn’t really appreciating any of the art. Certainly I was seeing it. My primary goal of saying I had seen Picasso’s work was being met. But was I getting anything out of the experience? Not at all. I found myself well ahead of my group of friends and with sore feet I plopped myself down on a bench.

Growing bored, I looked up and began to analyze the painting in front of me, which as you can now deduce was Science and Charity. The painting, which is the size of a large rectangular kitchen table, was painted by Picasso in 1897 when he was only sixteen. It depicts a man lying sick in his bed. To the man’s left is a doctor seated in a chair, staring at his watch, and taking the man’s pulse. On the other side of the sick man is a nun looking down at him comfortingly, while offering him a drink and holding his child.

When I had first walked past the work I had certainly looked at it. Big oil painting. Check. But I hadn’t really seen it. Now as I sat staring at it, I began to take it apart with my eyes. As its name described, the painting contrasted the doctor’s cold calculating treatment of the sick man with the nun’s warm comforting care. “What was Picasso trying to say with this painting?” I wondered to myself. Was the fact it was a nun important; a comment on religion’s ability to comfort the sick and dying? Were a male doctor and a female nun reflective of the times or a comment on gender stereotypes concerning emotionless calculating men and emotional caring women? Was the child with blond curly hair supposed to suggest that “charity” would look after the man’s child or was the child supposed to be Jesus? Maybe I was reading too much into it.

My girlfriend caught up with me shortly and sat next to me on the bench. With a bachelor degree in cultural studies and with a few art history courses under her belt, she began to point out aspects of the painting I’d overlooked. She observed that the shadow on the left side of the doctor’s face suggested a single point of light, but the fully lit nurse suggested that even the light had something to say. She also noted the painting was likely painted from the inside out.

The other two in our group finally caught up and I proceeded through the rest of the museum in my usual fashion, observing each painting as another trophy for my eyes. Picasso’s Blue Period. Check. Picasso’s nudes. Check. Picasso’s abstract portraits. Check.

But it was Science and Charity that stuck out in my mind. When I entered the gift store at the end of the tour I sought out the painting in its postcard form. Thus, I accomplished my retirement activity of the week. Appreciating art. While I didn’t take the time to appreciate all the paintings in the museum, the ten minutes I spent in front of that one spoke to me. A stagnant century old canvas became dynamic as I spent time trying to understand, and if not understand then appreciate, the piece. And there is certainly merit to that.

While I can’t specifically suggest that you fly to Barcelona to see the MuseuPicasso de Barcelona, I do suggest going to one of your local museums or art galleries and sitting or standing for a few minutes in front of a piece that speaks to you. They all won’t, but find one that captures your imagination and try to find its story. Talk about it with your friends and see what you come up with. Even if you’re as artistically dense as me, you may be surprised with what you come up with!

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