Art in late life – a fountain of youth?

big Matisse cut-out

The French artist Matisse did his most daring and liberating work in his 80s.

My New Old Self is intrigued with the notion of old age as a second childhood. Not a baby-like return in one’s dotage to being fed, dressed, bathed and having diapers changed. I mean In A Good Way.

Throughout Western history scholars and writers have characterized old age as a period of a second childhood and childish behavior… The second childhood was also interpreted as a stage of life where the lifecycle returned to its beginning. The stereotype, while predominantly viewed as negative, may also be viewed in a positive light and underscores the duality and ambiguity that characterized the way older people have been viewed in Western history. The stereotype, while enduring, may have been more prevalent during certain periods, such as those periods when older people were devalued.

– “A return to infancy: old age and the second childhood in history”, HC Covey, International Journal of Aging and Human Development1992

Think childhood and the words uncomplicated and innocent come to mind. Anxiety and responsibility do not. Who wouldn’t want to relive at least some parts of those carefree days?

“Second Childhood” is the title of a 1936 “Our Gang” short comedy film in which Spanky, Alfalfa and the rest of The Little Rascals win the heart of a stereotyped crotchety old lady.

There are those who have exhorted us, as we age, to confront our fears of seeming childish.

Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

– C.S. Lewis, author of pre-Harry Potter children’s fantasy, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, Library Association talk delivered in 1952, published in On Other Worlds (Harcourt, 1966)

What’s to fear, actually? Those were halcyon days. Playing with friends, or alone. Sometimes with toys, often with everyday things. Like paper.

Adults use paper mainly for printing documents. We minimize its use in an effort to be green. A stark contrast to childhood, when paper seemed in endless supply, at school and at home. As kids we used paper to do a lot of scribbling.

A lot of good that did us, say early childhood development experts. Scribbling developed our fine motor skills and coordination. Scribbling helped us learn to write. (While grasping a pen or pencil. Don’t know which activities help children write on keyboards. Anyway now they’re practically born typing with their opposable thumbs.)

Back to scribbling. And another activity you can do with paper: cutting shapes. Which is apparently another crucial childhood precursor to writing.

Cutting patterns for preschoolers

Patterns to help preschoolers develop cutting skills

Cutting with scissors can also be a liberating approach to fine art. That was the discovery of one of the most influential modern artists, Henri Matisse. Famed mainly as a painter, near the end of his life he was wheelchair-bound and eventually bedridden. So he started cutting shapes out of paper. Which takes use back to the notion of a second childhood.

Matisse never lost his passionate love of color. But in his later years, the evocation of color became simplified, purified and transformed into that late freedom seen in so many artists in old age. Matisse demonstrated not ego complexification but a sublime kind of regression, a simplicitiy that was the fruit of a lifetime’s experience

Harry R. Moody, “From Successful Aging to Conscious Aging” in Successful Aging Through the Life Span: Intergenerational Issues in Health, edited by May L. Wykle, Peter J. Whitehouse and Diana L. Morris

Matisse’s sublime regression – if that’s indeed what it was – began when an operation for bowel cancer nearly killed him. Continued ill health prevented him from standing and painting. These blows coincided with the Nazi occupation of his native France. All of which was enough to drive Matisse to picking up scissors. And some paper prepared with opaque watercolour known as gouache.

 My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me. I had so completely prepared for my exit from life that it seems to me that I am in a second life

– Matisse writing to the painter Albert Marquet in 1942

What I did before this illness, before this operation, always has the feeling of too much effort; before this, I always lived with my belt tightened. What I created afterwards represents me myself: free and detached.

– Matisse to his friend Jedlicka, quoted in J. Cowart et al., Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-Outs, St. Louis Art Museum, 1977

Some, like his friend and rival Picasso, dismissed his new work as childish. But Matisse no longer cared what others thought. He just loved the feeling of drawing with scissors, describing it as “the graphic, linear equivalent of the sensation of flight”. He cut a lot of these vibrant and intriguing shapes before he finally figured out what to do with them.

Polynesia - The Sea by Henri Matisse

Polynesia – The Sea by Henri Matisse

The revelation regarding the cut-outs covering his studio walls occurred when Matisse reconnected with a former nurse and erstwhile model of his. She too was reinventing herself, by becoming a nun. Sister Jacques-Marie shared her idea of building a small chapel . Although Matisse was not religious himself, he decided to create stained-glass windows and murals for the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary in the village of Vence.

Matisse and the nun who inspired him to find a home for his cut-outs in her chapel

Matisse and the nun who inspired him to find a home for his cut-outs in her chapel

Thus at the age of nearly 80 Matisse embarked on what he would come to call “the fruit of my whole working life” and “my masterpiece”. If you happen to be in New York City you can see the Cut-Outs exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (previously in London, Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern). If you get to the south of France you can see them translated into stained glass.

Allan Leonard’s BBC video on the 60th anniversary of the Chapel inaugurated in 1951 with shots of the stained glass window and of Matisse at work

Matisse wanted the chapel to be a place where people could leave their burdens behind – “as Muslims leave the dust of the streets on the soles of the sandals lined up at the door of a mosque”. How striking that in this analogy the artist evoked Islam rather than Christianity. The chapel is full of subtle allusions to Islamic art, inspired by Matisse’s memories of visiting Moorish Spain and North Africa four decades earlier. It is almost as if he wanted his chapel to transcend religious faith. It didn’t matter what you believed in, or even if you were an atheist: the chapel would still exert its soothing influence.

–  Henri Matisse: a Second Life, by Alastair Sooke

But you might do better to stay at home and make like Matisse. By picking up paper and scissors and creating your own cut-outs. A new study by German neurologists suggests that art is good for you in later life. Visiting art galleries seems to reduce stress levels. But hands-on art classes have even greater benefits. Such as “a significant improvement in psychological resilience”. We could all use some more of that as we get older.

Researchers at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg explained that drawing, painting and other art forms are associated with parts of the brain in charge of introspection, self-monitoring, and memory. Since aging negatively affects these activities, they think creative art work might just counter this decline.

brain scan study

Scientists found that older people in art classes “showed spatial improvement in functional connectivity of PCC/preCUN to the frontal and parietal cortices from T0 to T1”.

Really? Forget about no pain, no gain at the gym. I’m signing up for anti-aging, memory-boosting art classes.

Back to Matisse and his cut-outs. Does this fascinating study offer any insights into his wildly productive final years in the face of infirmity? And how and why other artists – Titian, Monet, Picasso, Chagall, Bourgeois – continued to produce powerful work into old age? Perhaps passionate artistic creativity can serve as a fountain of youth.

Matisse's Christmas Eve stained glass

“Christmas Eve” stained glass window by Matisse from cut-out model commissioned for New York’s Time-Life Building, 1952


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