Retired and on the hunt for a new hobby? Looking for a way to give back to the community? Long-time Glen Park resident Charlie Goldberg has some ideas you may find useful.
For almost thirty years, Goldberg worked at Kaiser as emergency room doctor. And while he was always interested in the fine arts, a fortuitous encounter with one patient helped launch him into his second, post-retirement career as a teacher and docent.
Goldberg describes the encounter this way: “When people come into the emergency room, they’re often frightened and in pain. One way to relax them is to say, ‘Just look at me and talk about something.’”
Normally that takes their minds off their problems, at least a bit, but on one day just a few years before he retired, the patient who Goldberg asked to do this turned out to be in charge of docents at SFMOMA.
“We talked about the arts and how interested we both were in them, and after she was discharged, she got back in touch with me to ask if I wanted to be a docent and also to let me know that she could help arrange it, and that training was available if I needed it, which I of course did.”
Goldberg was delighted to hear this, took the training, and began working as a volunteer docent at SFMOMA.
Today, in retirement, he’s a docent both there and at the Museum of the African Diaspora. He also offers classes on the fine arts at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) here in San Francisco. In his OLLI classes Goldberg emphasizes fun, interactivity, and learning as a group rather than formal lectures and theories. His current course focuses on portraits.
Why portraits? “There’s something mysterious and very intense about faces and the way we react to them. For example: we decide in a matter one-tenth of second whether we trust someone or not.”
Goldberg thinks it’s obvious that our brains have a “preloaded” ability, which we don’t completely understand, to read other people and make instant decisions about them. There’s a lot going on here, and a good deal of our ability to do this “instant analysis” gets expressed in portraits.
This apparently holds true not just for people but also for some animals. Goldberg tells the story of a village in India with a huge problem—people were being attacked by a Bengal tiger. But things went back to normal when someone thought of a simple fix: have villagers wear a mask of a human face on the back of their heads—giving them, from the tiger’s perspective, two faces that kept tigers under constant surveillance. It worked, and life went back to normal.
The power of portraits that Goldberg discusses in his OLLI class is seen in the work of Rembrandt (1606-1669), who did one hundred self-portraits over the course of his life.
In these portraits you clearly see the changes that time worked not just on his face but on him as a person.
In the one we see here, he’s a young man still learning his craft but eager to show that he could already do pretty much anything. We see that in the brash way he plays with light and shadow, and the incredible head of hair, which dazzles everyone who sees it. It’s especially interesting to compare this self-portrait to the wisdom and restraint we see in his final self-portrait, done weeks before his death in 1669.
We see something very different in this self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/1653), who is making a rare and extremely powerful statement about feminism. For one thing, we see her not in the prim and proper style most people at the time expected women to exhibit, but hard at work in a profession that was, at the time, considered the preserve of men. And she’s not just doing it—she’s working at an extraordinary level, particularly here in her use of light.
Today portraits and self-portraits are very different, in part because of the camera. Goldberg is especially fascinated by photographs of two very well-known women: Anais Nin and Gloria Swanson.
Even if you’ve never read any of her works, you know from this portrait that Nin was a complex, mysterious, and powerful woman. We see that in the extraordinary delicacy of her hands, which contrast with the drive and determination we see in her face. The Swanson photograph is perfection in every way—it’s hard to imagine how anyone could come up with a better-posed photograph than the one we see here. And the intensity we see in her eyes is extremely powerful, almost ferocious. Here too we see a woman who shattered all expectations and set her own rules.
For a more in-depth look at portraits and artworks in general, catch one of Goldberg tours at SFMOMA and the Museum of the African Diaspora, or check out one of his classes at the Osher Lifeline Learning Institute here in San Francisco. More information on OLLI classes is available at olli.sfsu.edu.