Someone once told me that it’s only when you accept the reality of death that you can really start to live. There’s been a great deal of comment about Stephen Sutton, who lost his battle against cancer this week, though not before he’d succeeded in raising nearly three and half million pounds on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust.
We will never know how Stephen’s life might have panned out, had he not been diagnosed with cancer at the age of 15, but one thing is indisputable; faced with certain death, he chose to live triumphantly, passionately, generously and more fully than most of us achieve in a lifetime.
The exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Britain tells a similar story. What a luminous, inspiring show it is! The cut-outs were produced towards the end of Matisse’s life, after he’d undergone a major operation that greatly reduced his mobility and made it hard for him to stand at an easel or execute the precise brush-strokes needed to paint.
Many in such circumstances would have allowed themselves a well-earned retirement, but not Matisse. For him, ill-health and old age were no match for the irresistible the urge to live and create. Abandoning palette and brushes, he began instead to fashion a whole new and innovative way of working.
Matisse originally developed the technique of cutting shapes out of coloured paper to help in the composition of his canvases. He loved how paper cut-outs allowed him to move things around and try out a myriad of different arrangements that he could adjust and re-adjust until the image was perfect.
Following his surgery however, the paper models came to take the place of painted images altogether. As video footage shows, Matisse was remarkably adept at cutting, his scissors slicing through the paper in fluid, wholly confident movements. He found this liberating, remarking, “only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.”
Matisse’s acute visual sense, developed over a life-time, enabled him to see how apparently bizarre or random shapes could take on meaning and potency within his carefully constructed schema. As an artist he had a terrific capacity for expressing dynamic movement, which, coupled with his unparalleled sense of colour, endows his work with huge vitality, a sense of lightness, energy and joy.
As Matisse grew older, his paintings became ever more youthful. The cut-outs feature stars and sea-creatures, tumbling acrobats, dancers and doves, floating coral, beating hearts, flowers bursting with colour. They’re extraordinarily life-affirming. Matisse finally died in 1954 at the age of 84 but he kept on working right up to the end.