Artful Practices for Well-Being

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Claude Monet. Water Lilies. 1914-26 591

Oil on canvas, 6' 6 1/2" x 19' 7 1/2" (199.5 x 599 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund

Christopher Bailey: Hi, this is Christopher Bailey, Arts and Health Lead of the World Health Organization, here to talk today about the healing power of art, in this case, with Monet's Water Lilies. I also happen to be functionally blind with less than 5% of normal vision. You might reasonably ask, what would a blind person have to say about an art masterwork? Did it cure my blindness? No, it didn't. But, in some ways, it might've helped me heal.

When I was asked to do this audio, my first sensation was remembering back to my twenties in New York City. My girlfriend was French, and with our student IDs, we would come to MoMA frequently and certain paintings and sculptures became touchstone friends to our relationship. But the Water Lilies room was, in many ways, a temple to our love, an oasis of color and magnificence overwhelming our senses with light and life and love, much in the way our emotions for each other overwhelmed our young nervous systems. It was as much about the room itself, an intimate refuge that we shared with only a few million other New Yorkers.

My second relationship with the painting comes from my father. He was an art conservator and a painter himself. When he took me to museums as a child, it was not a pleasure outing nor an educational excursion but a rare chance to be with my father in his workplace. He approached art conservation the way a good tailor or electrician approaches his job. What was really interesting was the construction of the painting itself, how the paint was applied in kinetic joy for its own color effects. How two distinct blobs of paint could combine in the mind to create a different color, a different effect. And the dance between the artist and the object, represented by brushstrokes fossilized onto the canvas with dried paint.

So when I was approached for this commentary, deep into middle age, I hesitated. I had lost my sight a number of years ago. And although I had adapted, learning echolocation, discovering synesthesia, learning how my neural pathways rerouted from my eyes to my other senses so that sound was more than pitch and volume and meaning, but began to create a spatial world around me.My deepening world of sound somehow seemed to me more palpable and present than my former world of light. Rather than exiling me from the world, in some ways, I felt more intimate connections to it.

And still, I dreaded this request. I had been avoiding museums for years and MoMA and the Water Lilies, in particular, precisely because it meant so much to me when I was young. And yet, to my astonishment, looking at the Water Lilies through the gauze of glaucoma, my first feeling was that Monet was actually painting the way I see now. And for the first time, I could imagine that the way I see the world could be conceived of as beautiful. My eyesight registered some of the colors and patches here and there. My intimate memory of the painting began to fill in some of the gaps. And somehow the interplay between brushstroke, emotion, memory and the imagination created the Water Lilies in my mind.

I began to think about the canvas itself and how the nearly abstract brushstrokes simultaneously give the impression of the surface of the water, the reflections of the unseen sky above, and intimations of what may lay beneath the surface, all captured in a single plane, a single space and moment. I realized that much of our anxiety and suffering in this world is about feeling that sense of loss from the past and dread of what might happen in the future, which, if it overwhelms us, can distract us from experiencing fully the present moment.

I began to think about how a chord in music, when the notes are played separately, becomes a melody, pleasing because our minds immediately remember the note just played, hear the present note, and anticipate the note to come and combining these sensations in the mind, the chords form in harmony, even when the sound has passed or has yet to be. So too, when revisiting the Water Lilies, do I slip into a sense of completeness. Surface, depth, and reflection converge, just as past, future, and the present moment become one. And I've realized I've lost nothing. I feel no anxiety or dread. I simply luxuriate in the joy of color and celebrate this present moment. This to me is the healing power of art.