Arts and Aging: The Masters in Later Life

A recent article in New America Media begins with the words; “Late Matisse. Late Turner. Late Rembrandt.” These were the themes of three large European art exhibitions last year.

In the article, geriatrician Dr. Desmond O’Neill, one of world’s leading researchers in his field, talks about how the art world’s new interest in famous artists’ later works, shows changing societal attitudes about aging.

O’Neill explains that in the past, the aging “narrative has been a simplistic one of loss and decline”. He says that presently “we’ve got to recognize growth in later life. And not only recognize growth, but also the extraordinary abilities of people in later life to cope with the existential problems they have”.

He states that in the past “people used to talk about ‘successful aging’. It means that if you didn’t reach the criteria of successful aging, you’d failed”. Instead, these exhibitions demonstrate how older artists evolved and adapted to the physical and cognitive challenges of aging.

French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) continued to create new, exciting and innovative art despite his physical challenges in later life.

blue-nude-1952Blue Nude – Musée Henri Matisse, Nice, France paper cut out 1952

The Tate Modern Gallery in London exhibited Matisse’s later work in an exhibition last fall.

“The exhibition represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of the artist’s works in one place and discover Matisse’s final artistic triumph. In his late sixties, when ill health first prevented Matisse from painting, he began to cut into painted paper with scissors to make drafts for a number of commissions. In time, Matisse chose cut-outs over painting: he had invented a new medium.”

An article in The Guardian further examines Matisse’s new technique.

“Matisse was in a wheelchair by 1941, following radical colon surgery at the age of 71. He could no longer work with an easel, and yet became so creatively resurgent with the cut-outs that what he gratefully called his “second life” could just as well apply to his work. Paper and scissors gave him colour and form, and a way of drawing, painting and more, that would evolve through the last 13 years of his life.”

“The famous quartet of ‘Blue Nudes’ were made in 1952, when Matisse was 82. He could not move about, he could not arrange these large but fragile slivers on the wall – a film shows his assistant shifting them around under instruction, and even holding up the sheets of paper while he scissors away.”

Click here to see archival footage of Matisse making a paper cut out.

British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), widely known for his landscape paintings, was a prolific painter in his later years. The Tate gallery featured his later works (from 1835 until his death) in the exhibition Late Turner – Painting Set Free.
Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851The Departure of the Fleet – Joseph Mallord William Turner, Date Exhibited 1850

The gallery talks about his work as “bringing together spectacular works from the UK and abroad, this exhibition celebrates Turner’s astonishing creative flowering in these later years when he produced many of his finest pictures.”

Released in 2014, the award winning movie ‘Mr. Turner’ explores Turner’s controversial later years.

Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt (1606-1669) is highlighted in the Late Rembrandt exhibition on now at the Rijks museum in Amsterdam.
Familieportret BraunschweigFamily Portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1665.

“Rembrandt’s later life was marked by tragic personal loss and financial setbacks. Yet it was also the time when he produced his best work. He experimented with paint and light, managing to bring an unprecedented emotional depth to his work. It resulted in his most daring and intimate work.”

These famous artists demonstrate that older adults can continue to pursue their creative passions and produce astonishing works of art. As O’Neill explains “so what we’re actually talking about is ‘optimal aging’ that understands the existential hits that we’re going to take in terms of disability and creates a system that frees you from unnecessary constriction by that disability”.

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2 thoughts on “Arts and Aging: The Masters in Later Life

  1. Pingback: Making Connections | L'Inspired Living

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