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The art of ageing

Art exhibition uses work of famous artists to challenge perceptions held of older people

Negative perceptions of ageing and older people are being challenged through the works of famous artists at an exhibition that opened today.

The show aims to celebrate and explore age and the ageing process. It includes works by Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henry Moore and Maggi Hambling, as well as newly commissioned pieces by three contemporary artists.

"Ageing is the most important subject on the planet," said Tom Kirkwood, director of Newcastle University's institute of ageing and health, which is behind the exhibition at the city's Great North Museum: Hancock.

"Life expectancy is the biggest thing that will change humanity in the 21st century. We face other major challenges of course, climate change say, but the fact our lives are getting longer is just enormous in its implications."

Degas had a progressive retinal eye disease from his 30s which, in all likelihood, contributed to the wonderfully blurred, hazier backgrounds of his later and better works, including the Ballet Dancers painting in the show on loan from the National Gallery.

Arguably, this helped secure his place in art history, with Renoir writing that, had Degas died at 50 he'd be no more than a footnote.

Renoir was so affected by rheumatoid arthritis that he couldn't hold a paintbrush in later life. Instead he turned to sculpture and employed a younger artist to form the clay following his instructions, as in the Mother and Child bronze in the exhibition.

The show is trying to shine a light on many aspects of a large subject. For example, the inclusion of Henry Moore's illustrations for The Seven Ages of Man aims to highlight the fact that ageing is a lifelong process that begins in the womb. Another Moore drawing is of the hands of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of Britain's most important scientists, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from the age of 24.

There is a striking Hambling portrait of her elderly neighbour Frances Rose, whose gnarled arthritic hands may scream pain, but whose face shows liveliness and vitality. A video by Jordan Baseman portrays 83-year-old eccentric Gordon Rowley – former president of the British Cactus and Succulent Society – who maintains a joyful verve for life and living.

"This idea that you've got to go quietly into a corner at a certain age is dreadful and nonsense," said the show's curator, Lucy Jenkins.

Three artists – Jennie Pedley, Andrew Carnie and Annie Cattrell – have collaborated with and followed scientists at the institute to produce works for the show. Cattrell observed brain autopsies before creating her works which examine how memory is stored and include sculptures of the hippocampus and amgydala in a brain-shaped cave.

Kirkwood and Jenkins said they hoped visitors would leave the exhibition with more of a spring in their step.

"I hope people will take a lot of positives from this show, that we shouldn't fear old age," Jenkins said.

"The fact that people are living longer is really good for the economy," added Kirkwood.

Everyone needed to think more positively about ageing, he said.

"The way things are going now, the vast majority of us are going to live to a ripe old age and if there has to come a point when you look in the mirror and you don't like what you see that's very undermining for your self-esteem and the quality of your life.

"This is why art, which can reach in to people and get them to think and respond differently, is so important."

Coming of Age: The Art and Science of Ageing is on until 2 March. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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