Monday, July 26, 2010

Pablo Picasso: Self-portrait Facing Death (1972)

Does anyone not know the name Picasso? Based on sales of his works at auctions, he holds the title of top ranked artist according to the Art Market Trends report. He was also a prolific artist with estimates of 50,000 works of art producedin his lifetime. (This includes paintings, drawings, sculptuers, etc).

Pablo Picasso worked up until the day he died at age 91; literally painting till 3 am on Sunday, April 8th, which was just hours before his death.

His last well known self-portriat was done a little less than a year before his death, entitled Self Portrait Facing Death (June 30, 1972).

The piece is done with crayon on paper, and took several months to complete. A friend, Pierre Daix, tells of his memory of the piece on a visit to Picasso, "[Picasso] held the drawing beside his face to show that the expression of fear was a contrivance." Then on another visit 3 months later, Pierre recalled that the harsh colored lines were even deeper, and Pierre writes, "He did not blink. I had the sudden impression that he was staring his own death in the face, like a good Spaniard"

There is much comentary about this piece. People talk about the fear of death Picasso had and how terrified his eyes look. They comment on the deep lines of age, and the work symbolizing Picasso's confrontation of death.

Interestingly, as I researched this post I found a complete catolgue of Picasso's works, in sequential order. It appears that just days prior and days after the piece above, he did several other self portraits.

I'm placing them in order, and wonder if there is a comment in the progression, I certainly feel there is a change with each. Below, copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, are Self Portrait (June 28, 1972), Self Portrait (July 2, 1972), and Self Portrait (July 3, 1972)

In all his works through the next months before his death, I saw no further self portraits, these above were done in a burst, as if when done with these, he was done contemplating self and death.

Picasso's death itself was sudden, waking on the morning of the 8th with an inabilty to get out of bed, calling for his wife, and dying 10 mins later. His cause of death was likely a heart attack with complications from heart failure.

I am happy to have stummbled upon the other portraits, giving us different glimpses of the idea of himself. Having such different works done in such a short time, gives testament to the complexity of all of our own self concepts. Just as I see the feelings of chaos, fear and acceptance in the works above, my own patients contemplating death can bounce from chaos, fear and acceptance sometimes in the span of a few hours.

References and more reading on the title piece:

*And special thanks to Karen Faught for alerting me to this piece

Monday, July 26, 2010 by Amy Clarkson · 7

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fred Hersch

Just a year after his first album was released at age 29, self taught jazz composer and pianist Fred Hersch was diagnosed with HIV. Hersch was recently interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered.

"For at least the first number of albums I made on my own, I really had this kind of dramatic feeling like this is going to be my last statement and I just wanted to create enough of a body of work that if I died I might somehow be remembered. That was like the thrust."

In 2008, Hersch developed an AIDS related delirium. He developed pneumonia and septic shock. He required a feeding a tube. He states he was in a coma for 2 months. When he came out of his coma, he couldn't walk, talk or swallow. He suffered from vocal cord paralysis.

Now 54, Hersch has released more than 2 dozen albums. "...Now that I've been on the scene and achieved some degree of success and respect I don't feel the need to prove my self in any particular way. I can take more risks." He recently released the album Whirl, his first since his prolonged illness.

How did his illness effect his music? "I think in ways I may be better. I feel certainly more relaxed as a player. I think I'm digging deeper. There are a few little technical things that were easier before that now I have to compensate for, but the small technical things, nobody would notice but me."

Below is one of the songs from Whirl, "Still Here". It is not actually about Hersch himself. It was inspired by Wayne Shorter, jazz saxophonist and composer who is still playing and composing at age 76. (A couple more of his songs, "Snow is Falling" and "Skipping" can be heard on the NPR website, here.)

I find it amazing that Hersch not only recovered from such a serious illness, he went on to create terrific jazz. When I heard his NPR interview, it stuck in my head because of his interesting outlook on his illness. His health problems didn't hinder his music career. They seemed to spur it on.

Monday, July 19, 2010 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 1

Monday, July 12, 2010

Departures (2008)

Departures (2008) is a Japanese film that is a must see for those in the palliative care field. I first learned of it from a family member of a patient I was caring for. The son felt it so necessary that I see the film that he acted out part of the movie, dropping to his knees to act out a scene while I was rounding.

The movie won and academy award for best foreign language film in 2009. The movie is about a young cellist who looses his symphony job, and must move back to the town where he was raised. He sees an ad in the paper for a job in "departures", and assumes it must be in the travel industry.

He is hired on the spot and then learns that there was a typo, and it is actually a job with "the departed" and he will be someone in the casketing industry.

I love many things about this film. Most tangible is the cultural beauty of the dying and funeral process in Japan. The whole family is present during the ritual washing, putting on make-up, and placement into the casket. Just as in our work, the viewer sees family dysfunction, anger and sadness during this process.

I couldn't help but notice the similarities with our profession. The main character moves from fear and squeamishness at death, to a profound awareness of the brevity of life - coming home one day to grasp his wife and hold on to her as if he felt his own life ebbing away. He accepts that death is a part of life, and continues to work with the dead, even when shunned by friends and family for such a "disrespectful" job.

Just like palliative care, he profoundly helps the families he encounters. They are full of gratitude when he is finishes his job. He treats the bodies with respect and compassion, which seems to ease some of the pain the families are feeling.

I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say this film is rich in personal growth, forgiveness and healing. With the backdrop of a profession that deals with death, and musical score that incorporates the talented cellist, it is easy to see why this film is beautiful and a must see for those who work with people at the end of life.

Watch the trailer below or visit the official site here.

Monday, July 12, 2010 by Amy Clarkson · 5

Monday, July 5, 2010

Death Masks

A death mask is a cast made of a persons face hours after death, a process that goes back to ancient times and was common until the mid 20th century. These are usually done in plaster or wax. The casts are then used as mementos of the dead or to create portraits. (J Edgar Hoover kept a death mask of John Dillinger in his office as a souvenir of his war on crime.) The History Channel made a documentary on the topic, entitled Death Masks.

The documentary focuses on the death and life masks (made while the person was still alive) of several famous historic figures, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, Napoleon, John Dillinger . They then use modern computer scans to create life like images of how the person would look in real life. They go into the process of how the masks are made. A life mask made in Lincoln's time had to set about an hour on the persons face to dry. Not a big deal if you were already dead, but I would imagine a long hour if you were alive. (Below is a death mask of Shakespeare.)

Mostly the documentary focused on what the masks could tell us about the deceased. Was the man shot in Chicago really John Dillinger? Is the dollar bill an accurate portrait of George Washington? It seems that sometimes more than one death mask will surface for a particular person and it is a challenge to find which is the right one. The two life masks of Lincoln, taken 5 years apart (one before he became president and one just weeks before he died) shows a marked decline in his health. The last mask made has actually be confused for a death mask.

The documentary goes into some of the psychology behind the desk masks. "From ancient times, capturing the faces of the dead for all to see was a macabre reminder that we all end up as dust." Death masks were not just meant to be mementos but to serve as a warning to the living. "Death masks in particular are dark. This is not a living person. This is a corpse. In many ways they are a message to the living. They are about your mortality. About this is what you will become. They are designed to frighten in many ways." There are some very frightening death masks shown in the documentary.

The death masks reminded me a lot of the death photography. Both I find interesting but just a bit creepy. I'm not sure I would want either hanging in my living room. (Who wants a reminder of their own mortality hanging above their television?) I think I would much rather of a life mask of a loved one. Remember how they were before death, not after.

Monday, July 5, 2010 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 0