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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Growing Old

Old age is never a comforting thought. For an artist especially, it can be a real horror. It rings up images of arthritis in which merely holding a brush can bring anguished pain. It threatens the artist's lifeline to the outside world, his or her vision.  It often entails frailty and fatigue where once there was strength and vigor. There can be sadness and despair in outliving old friends, one's spouse, even ones' children. Yet the creative urge never dies. Sometimes it is the one spark that keeps an artist alive and aware. It can be a harsh taskmaster, driving the aging artist, now with excruciating pain, and an uncertain, but nonetheless final, deadline to do that which, in youth, would have been quite easy. Where others might simply give up, the true artist adjusts. Claude Monet painted massive garden scenes seen through double cataracts with a brush bound to fingers which could no long grip it.

Henri Matisse, in the last decade of his life, following repeated, debilitating surgeries, his eyesight also failing, and so weak he could no longer get out of bed, adjusted to his condition by moving to huge sheets of paper he could still see and large blocks of painted paper meticulously arrange by assistants according to the master's directions. The work was necessarily abstract. No more could he create the intricate, flat, interior designs or two-dimensional painted figures that had long been the hallmark of his flamboyant style. His gouache on paper work entitled The Snail, created in 1953, just a year before he died, is an excellent example of the adjustments an old man made in continuing to do as best he could what best he loved.

The Snail, 1953,
Henri Matisse
 The "painting" is, in reality, a collage, (some nine and a half feet square) framed in large sheets of orange-painted paper cut by Matisse after having been painted by an assistants to his precise color demands. Color was always Matisse's forte. Even in his glory days, he was first and foremost a colorist.  In his later years, he was able to take advantage of twentieth century scientific developments which gave him a whole rainbow of bright, new, pure pigments only dreamed about in his youth.  Inside the orange frame is a white field in which only the most vivid imagination can discern the image of a snail. Arrange in a spiral from a central block of green are rectilinear shapes in magenta, lavender, flaming yellow, orange, bright red, royal blue, and grass green. A single sheet of black keeps the competing color fields under control against the pure whiteness of his background. The work is a testament to a man's sheer stubbornness to persist in the face of 85 years of daunting debilitation, giving new meaning to the phrase, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

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