Art and the age of invention

In the London art world at least, 2014 may well be remembered as the year of the old men.

Three of Europe’s most influential artists – Henri Matisse, JMW Turner and Rembrandt van Rijn – have all been honoured with major exhibitions at the capital’s Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries, and the National Gallery.

Whether by coincidence or collusion, these three shows have focused on work produced in the artists’ later years.

But that’s not the only thread that draws them together.

For me, the most astonishing thing about all these exhibitions has been the sheer invention on display.

Cutting edge

Matisse was old and infirm when he began to create images using scissors and paper.
Matisse-The-Parakeet-and-the-Mermaid-1952

Yet his mind was quick and his hands as strong and deft as ever.

Working at an incredible speed – and often far into the night – he produced images that, in many ways, have come to define his life’s work.

His version of The Snail, which hangs in Tate Britain, is probably one of his best-known works; famous for often evoking the retort: “My five-year-old could’ve done that!”

But Matisse wasn’t five. He was a very old man, confined to bed, or at best his wheelchair, unable to see the real world around him, yet driven to create and – critically – to experiment with new techniques.

And determined, too, to fill his world with images of joyful life and playful fun, as The Parakeet and the Mermaid so aptly demonstrate.

A man gone mad

Turner was another who, in his later years, broke free from anything resembling the chains of convention – which he always railed against – and, in his sixties and seventies, produced some of the most remarkable images of his entire life.
Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner-Paintings-Whalers-Boiling-Blubber-Entangled-in-Flaw-Ice-1846
So extreme were his ideas about light, and so seemingly perverse his use of oils and watercolours, many contemporary art lovers believed he had not so much lost the plot but suffered a complete disconnect from his senses.

Today, of course, when we see a painting like Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, which Turner produced when he was 71, we know we are looking at the work of a man who, far from being mad, was still trying to push his medium to its limit; still wanting to show us the sensations of the world rather than its mere surface.

The Dutch master

Born 169 years before Turner, and dead exactly 100 years before Matisse was even born, Rembrandt van Rijn never stopped experimenting.

How much he influenced the other two is open to question.

But, if nothing else is certain, he should have been a role model of determination and invention.

rembrandt.1661Here, in this late self-portrait, he is experimenting with the effects of light and paint on a flat surface, working with the very stuff of oil and pigment to create an image that says: “I may be old, bankrupt and out of fashion, but I’m not finished yet. See, I can still draw circles!”

If we are to take anything from these three remarkable exhibitions – and there is much to enjoy and savour in reflection – it is this: that age never diminishes the creative spirit and infirmity cannot destroy the will to communicate ideas.

Matisse, Turner and Rembrandt have not only been role models for the thousands of painters who have followed them, but also for us all.

At the end of this, the year of the old men, we should remember that vigour and imagination, skill and dexterity, truth and vision are attributes and virtues to be valued and striven for, right to the end.

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