First Installment April 12, 2023
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
The Return of the Artist
Chapter 8, Part I
(Google Matisse, Large Composition with Masks, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
(Google Matisse, La Negresse, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Matisse, Bonnard, Bonnard, Matisse, their names and faces—and paintings, too—passed sleepily before me in the early morning sunlight. My awakening fingers slid lazily, leisurely over the smooth, expensive pages of first a Bonnard biography, then one of Matisse. I truly loved art history books. I yawned appreciatively from my reclining position on the apartment floor. Around me spread an uneven fan of beautifully bound and richly covered tomes, partially mine, the rest possessions of the local library.
Too bad they were so heavy, I mused, carefully maneuvering into a sitting position, intent on not disturbing the weighty volumes surrounding me. Art historians had to develop muscles if they wanted to survive, I concluded. How many times had I had to haul a crate full of hardbacks from the college library to my dorm and back again. Thank God for the growing number of considerably lighter—and cheaper—paper editions, a modern publishing miracle.
Matisse, Bonnard—and Cezanne. Yes, Cezanne, He was the artist I was supposed to be studying now in the few hours I had remaining before my class scheduled for 11:00 at Sarah’s nursing home. Alice and I had decided to experiment, offering a special daytime session on this Tuesday, utilizing a seminar format instead of a slide presentation.
Perhaps it might be even more successful than the evening programs. The residents, I assumed, would be fresher and livelier in the morning and able to more fully participate in what would be primarily a discussion group on Cezanne, who had been presented earlier in the series.
Besides, it gave me an excuse to take a day off from my current and typically boring temporary job, although of course it meant I wouldn’t get any pay.
But I kept returning to Matisse and Bonnard. Amazing, I thought, how closely matched they were as artists and men. If not exactly twins, then definitely brothers in art, sons of the same country and centuries, their lives running parallel, from birth to death. Pierre Bonnard, the predecessor by two years, born in 1867, followed by Henri Matisse in 1869. At the end, too, Bonnard was the initiator, dying in 1947 at 79, while Matisse, nearly 85, succumbed in 1954. Long existences, mostly spent as mutual friends and admirers, personally and professionally, symbolized by a continuous exchange of letters for almost a decade.
Their backgrounds were similar as well, both from middle-class families, with fathers in government and business. Neither was raised to consider painting as a valid career. Ironically, the two future leaders of modern art spent their late teens and early twenties earning law degrees. Yet, Bonnard had discovered his talent for drawing as a child, his brief stint in the legal profession only a diversionary tactic to satisfy the wishes of his father.
Matisse was much slower than his friend, only realizing his destiny at the age of 21 while recuperating from an attack of appendicitis. Until then he had been a law clerk, apparently unaware of his creative powers. Matisse’s convalescence was the turning point—the fortuitous moment when his mother gave him a simple paint set to amuse himself. “It was as if I had been called,” he remembered later. “Henceforth I did not lead my life. It led me.”
For more than a half-century, Matisse and Bonnard dedicated their days and nights to expressing their unique visions and dreams—a pursuit not without struggle and opposition, particularly in the beginning. But they seemed individuals of balance and restraint, adhering, at least on the surface, to a disciplined and routine way of life. Decidedly bourgeois in appearance and habit (Matisse resembling a respectable doctor, Bonnard, a country gentleman), they were equally bonded to their beloved homes in the south of France.
From their middle years on, Matisse and Bonnard were captives of the Riviera—the former occupying a series of hotels and apartments in Nice, the latter, a sole villa in Le Cannet. Each dared to compose and orchestrate his own private world, allowing us, the spectators, to travel into the inner sphere of the artist’s creation.
With Matisse, it is the Orient, simulated within the walls and alcoves of his rented rooms. Sensuous interiors of weaving tapestries, floral screens, and striped cloths dotted with parakeets, checkerboards, lemons and plants as well as voluptuous models. With Bonnard, it is the passage into the intimate spaces of French domesticity—one the source of nourishment, the other of cleanliness. First, the dining room with its rich buffets, deep cupboards, and the ever-present tablecloth, wine red or sugar white, adorned with confection-colored food. Then the bathroom, bejeweled and resplendent in rainbow tiles and shimmering tubs.
Neither artist ever stopped working, even through the final illnesses and frailties of old age. Matisse was plagued with an intestinal disorder for nearly 15 years, the pain so severe that he could barely stand upright for more than a few minutes at a time. Yet, he did not give up, managing to produce not only paintings, but sculptures, book illustrations, the design for an entire chapel, and lastly, the famous cutouts.
I was especially moved by a number of remarkable photographs taken of Matisse in his studio and bedroom, during the early 1950s, when he was in his eighties. In one picture, the artist, bespectacled and white-bearded, in tea planter pajamas and bare feet, sits in his wheelchair cutting precisely into a piece of colored paper. Scattered around him are the remnants of his labor—the debris of discarded scraps and slicing, reminding me of my own experience as a child when my classmates and I played with construction paper, leaving a similar mess around us.
Matisse, though, preserves his dignity despite his attire and incapacity amidst the paper chaos he had just created. Recalling a distinguished professor, or perhaps more accurately a physician, he astutely analyzes the progress of his scissored path, measuring through his glasses the effects of a process he once compared to “a sculptor’s carving into stone.”
Other photos showed Matisse, now bedridden, propped up with pillows, modeling a clay figure with just a hospital-like tray or table for support or drawing a face on the paper pinned on the wall directly opposite him, utilizing a long bamboo pole with a charcoal pencil attached to extend his reach. In both cases, the ingenuity of Matisse is demonstrated, the relentless motivation and energy of a spirit that knows only how to continue uncompromisingly into the next work of art.
The photographs also depict the cutouts as Matisse originally hung them with the help of a corps of assistants. Surprisingly monumental in scale, murals free of the constraints of canvases, they inundate the expanses of the Hotel Regina, Matisse’s last residence. For instance, in the dining room, the lively blue fires of The Swimming Pool, splash joyously across a horizontal band of open, white sea. Outlines and profiles of acrobatic women leap and dive, plunge and jump, through an ocean paradise of fish and flora.
But the most colossal of the cutouts, The Negresse and Large Composition with Masks, remained in Matisse’s studio, the place of their birth. The former, a giant of African ebony, looms some 14 feet toward the ceiling, while the latter, a panorama of quatrefoil flowers and Asian-featured masks, spans more than 32 feet across. In each composition, Matisse is the master of the essential, reducing with the wisdom of age the complexities of nature into the simplest forms, the purest colors.
The Negresse, her physique fragmented and loose, a circle for a stomach, triangle feet, and limbs of curving arcs, hops into an explosion of jitterbugging flowers. She dances along with them, a la Josephine Baker, enraptured by the syncopated rhythm of their musical petals. Large Composition with Masks is a jazz garden of fresh blossoms, vibrant in tones of primary red and blue, greens, fuchsia, and orange-yellow. Double paneled, it could easily fill a conference hall with its multiple rows of towering flowers rotating around two smiling masks. Yet each bud is an uncomplicated structure, free of extraneous detail and obscuring lines, in which Matisse reveals the most cherished formation of nature—the universal heart. Within the petals of every flower it beats, sometimes looking more like a tulip or tomato or three-leaf clover, but for the artist always the metronome of inspiration.
The masks too, offer the minimum of features—shorthand visages of eyes, brows, nose, mouth, and outer defining oval. Nothing else—no hair, skin, or even ears, the usual elements of the human face. Who are they? Why are they placed here at the core of Matisse’s summer heaven? Do they represent specific individuals or humanity in general? Are they openly grinning and laughing, reveling in the all encompassing beauty? Or are their expressions, subtler, less knowable—like twin Mona Lisas inviting one to guess the secret of nature’s bounty?
COMING TUESDAY: BONNARD AND THE ALMOND TREE IN BLOOM
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