The rain is coming down in a cold, solid drench. It’s a day I could call a wash. A day I might pull my arms out of the sleeves of my raincoat and zip up into a ball until the sun comes back.
After a two night business trip with my husband, we check out of the hotel, me with a sodden brochure clutched in my hand with our directions to the next place. It is absolutely pouring with no pause.
The water has soaked clear through the canvas of my suitcase as I toggle it across the slippery stones. Next we are ferrying down the churning sea-green waters of Lake Constance. And then off the ferry, past the railroad station, down the wet cobblestone streets of Lindau, Germany.
Because despite the dampened mood, art seems to be calling me. Art might just be the rescue to this day.
A small Matisse exhibit is tucked down an alleyway. We enter the castle-like building and even the walls seem to drip from the rain. But inside the gallery, colors and shapes jump off the walls and dance in front of us.
The room is a neon lit aquarium splashing with light. The exhibit is only two small rooms but packed with the most magnificent pieces from the artist’s Jazz portfolio. Yes, the famous Icarus and the Blue Nudes.
And there are seaweed prints undulating across the walls, everything is movement. The rounded feminine forms sway and come alive. Some drawings even appear to be done with a single long line of charcoal, swimming gracefully along the canvas.
There is so much richness to devour here, a ton of material to absorb and take away. Beginning with the artist’s timeline. I learn that Henri Matisse was born in Northern France and that he became a lawyer and he absolutely hated it.
Then in his early 20s when he was sick in bed for a period of time, he was given a set of paints and his world was changed forever.
He said: From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.
Matisse continued drawing and painting during World War II, and opted to stay in France during the air raids. At that time, his daughter Marguerite was taken by the Gestapo, and all through this time he continued to create.
And then later, when he was in his 70s, he was diagnosed with cancer and was very ill again, and it was only then, after more than 40 years of drawing and painting, did he begin cutting paper.
It was a way for him to keep working while bedridden. The paper curled in sheets from his bed as his assistants hustled around to help him achieve placement on the walls and canvas. His paper collage technique, called “gouache decoupes” became his signature motif.
A completely new art form was born when he was in the twilight of his life.
This is the inspiration for me today. Namely the idea that great work, great art, great efforts might come about in offbeat, unexpected ways.
We begin careers, work in certain fields for a number of years, and then something might emerge from nowhere that opens up a whole world. And often in adversity and illness the art just finds you.
With Matisse, he felt it when he lay in bed and held the paints that his mother had given him. And again, suffering from cancer, his brain had to re-adapt and invent new forms of expression. And what he came to, at such a late stage of his life, was his creative masterwork.
I always assumed that as we get older we become less creative, slower, and our brains become less focused, more fuzzy. Definitely not more expansive and inventive.
And I think of my dad, nearly Matisse’s age when he began Jazz, and I feel happy and inspired for him. Because I’m putting the pieces together that Dad is really changing in profound ways, and not in a downward trend at all. He is unfurling completely new tendrils of fresh stuff, moving in different directions with his creativity. He is becoming someone else entirely.
Like Matisse, he is inventing a new form.
I have overlooked the obvious – that maybe we are all moving into our best work. As we age we are opening into new artistic spaces, and no less than that. And if we only look at the loss and the deterioration in the process we miss it all. I think I lost sight of this in my grieving for all of the things that I lost when Mom died.
In the Icarus painting, the artist is retelling the Greek story of the young god who, intrigued by the power of the sun, wishes to fly towards it to claim it. But his wings melt and he falls dead to Earth, a failed quest, a lesson in hubris.
But Matisse’s Icarus is painted in calm, life-affirming blue, so the sky appears to hold the figure up. The figure seems to embrace the stars lovingly with his fingertips and his chest contains a red, pulsing heart.
It is not defeat, but more a sense of wonder and acceptance in the world of the heavens. I see the figure being gently wooed back into Creation.
He isn’t dying, he’s just changing into something else.
And so, nearly blind and himself dying from cancer, Matisse shows us this transformative brilliance, the embracing sky and the bright gold of illuminating and inspirational old stars. And the throbbing heart is at the precious center of everything.
And so it is the artist who leads the way for me today. Down an unfamiliar staircase into unformed, unknown but potential inspiration. Into jazzy new renditions and variations on unexpected themes. I discovered some new possibilities for melody in my ears, if I listen carefully.
Because I know I have to keep following the art the best that I can.