Picasso is a recurring theme in my life right now (exhibit a, exhibit b). Here's the latest incarnation:
The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer's Therapy
Sitting the other day in front of Picasso's rapturous "Girl Before a Mirror" at the Museum of Modern Art, Rueben Rosen wore the dyspeptic look of a man with little love for modern art. But the reason he gave for disliking the painting was not one you might expect to hear from an 88-year-old former real estate broker.
"It's like he's trying to tell a story using words that don't exist," Mr. Rosen said finally of Picasso, fixing the painter's work with a critic's stare. "He knows what he means, but we don't."
This chasm of understanding is one that Mr. Rosen himself stares into every day. He has midstage Alzheimer's disease, as did the rest of the men and women who were sitting alongside him in a small semicircle at the museum, all of them staring up at the Picasso.
It was a Tuesday, and the museum was closed, but if it had been open other visitors could have easily mistaken the group for any guided tour. Mr. Rosen and his friends did not wear the anxious, confused looks they had worn when they first arrived at the museum. They did not quarrel in the way that those suffering from Alzheimer's sometimes do. And when they talked about the paintings, they did not repeat themselves or lose the thread of the discussion, as they often do at the long-term care home where most of them live in Palisades, N.Y.
At one point, a member of the tour, Sheila Barnes, 82, a quick-witted former newspaper editor who suffers from acute short-term memory loss, was even uncharacteristically aware of the limitations of her memory. "If I've told this story before, then somebody just say, 'Cool it, Sheila,' " she announced, laughing.
She was a test subject, in a sense, in a growing effort to use art as a therapeutic tool for those in the grip of Alzheimer's. Art therapy, both appreciating art and making it, has been used for decades as a nonmedical way to help a wide variety of people - abused children, prisoners and cancer and Alzheimer's patients. But much of this work has taken place in nursing homes and hospitals. Now museums like the Modern and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are trying to bring it into their galleries, using their collections as powerful ways to engage minds damaged by dementia.
It seems to be working, though no one knows exactly how. While extensive research has been conducted on the effects of music and performing arts on brain function - the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in the Bronx has been studying the phenomenon for a decade now - there has been comparatively little work done in the visual arts.
What exists mostly is a stockpile of anecdotal evidence, encouraging but murky. Why did Willem de Kooning become more productive, almost maniacally so, as he descended into Alzheimer's? Why does frontotemporal dementia, a relatively rare form of non-Alzheimer's brain disease, cause some people who had no previous interest or aptitude for art to develop remarkable artistic talent and drive?
"Certainly it's not just a visual experience - it's an emotional one," said Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer. "In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep."
The Museum of Modern Art began to experiment with short, focused tours a year ago, working with an Alzheimer's care company called Hearthstone, based in Lexington, Mass. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, began to reach out to Alzheimer's patients more than five years ago, offering tours alongside those for other disabled groups. And the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Conn., also offers tours, in addition to conducting a program in which it sends educators to Alzheimer's care facilities to help with art therapy.
At the Modern, which plans to expand the Alzheimer's program next year to families and other care providers, the effects of the tours are often striking and seem to speak - in a world of reproduction - to the power of the original. (For now, the tours focus on representational art, on the theory that it's an easier touchstone for narratives and memories. There are no Pollocks, for example.)
Besides improving patients' moods for hours and even days, the tours seem to demonstrate that the disease, while diminishing sufferers' abilities in so many ways, can also sometimes spark interpretive and expressive powers that had previously lay hidden. Mr. Rosen, for instance, who had little interest in art when he was younger, talked with ease and inventiveness about the composition of Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy."