Saturday, January 10, 2015

Leaving the best till last? Goya, Klee and Matisse


What comes to mind when you think of disability?  Perhaps the child born with a genetic condition, or the person in the prime of life who becomes spinal cord injured.  But only 5% of children and only 10% of working age adults are disabled.  The majority of people become disabled in later life, and artists are no exception.  What interests me is how personal experience of illnesss and impairment is often ignored when it comes to thinking about creative people.  The lives of three artists in particular show how restriction created by ageing or disease can open up new possibilities.
Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate.  The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity, if a talented individual is forced to concentrate on art.  For example, David Hockney has said that his deafness makes it easier for him to concentrate on the visual.  But isolation can also lead to frustration and resentment.  I think this phenomenon may have contributed to the greatest works of one of the nineteenth century’s most dramatic and influential painters.
Francisco Goya was born in Aragon, Northern Spain, in 1746.  For most of his first fifty years, he mainly painted society portraits, light-hearted studies, historical scenes.  Then two things turned his world upside down.  First, Spain was torn apart by the conflict and cruelty of the Napoleonic wars.  Then, his life was changed by the deafness that he experienced after an illness in 1793, which might have been meningitis or possibly the effect of lead poisoning from the paint that he would have ground by hand.  Whatever the cause, the symptoms must have felt like a nightmare.  He suffered constant noise in his head, his balance was affected, and he was continually nauseous.   Either as a consequence or by coincidence, he also seems to have suffered a period of depression around this time.  He went to Cadiz, in Andalucia to convalesce at the home of the book and art collector Sebastian Martinez.  A benefit of this visit was that it gave him the chance of looking through his friend’s vast collection of prints – which probably included work by Blake, Hogarth, Gainsborough that would have been a revelation.
Deafness deprived Goya of music and conversation, two parts of life that he greatly enjoyed.   In the early years of the new century, his wife and his best friend from childhood both died.  He was also hauled in front of the Spanish Inquisition to justify his famously erotic painting of the Naked Maja.  As a result of this increased isolation, he seems to have become more introspective.  His work now includes new elements that suggests he was having some morbid thoughts.   He was still painting the portraits of Kings, Duchesses and Ambassadors.  But in the 1790s, he also depicted prisons and house-fires and shipwrecks and lunatic asylums and witches Sabbaths.  Then he made the Caprichos series of acquatints, most of which are savagely satirical and which consequently caused grave offence to the church.  The Blowers, number 48 in the series of 80, shows people being tortured by the noises of animals and witches, perhaps reflecting his own experience of tinnitus.  Around 1808, he engraved his great series of Disasters of War etchings, photojournalism before the invention of the camera, testifying to the atrocities committed by both sides in the Peninsular conflict.
In those first years of the new century, it’s hard to know whether it was the dreadful political situation, or bereavement, or deafness which contributed most to this new, darker Goya.  Nor should we ignore the wider context of Romanticism that saw artists and writers turning away from the rationality of the age in favour of raw nature and emotion.   Goya called a 1799 print “the sleep of reason produces monsters”.  It was in this context that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816. Goya’s own most famous contribution to the horror genre came with the so-called Black Paintings, murals with which he decorated the country retreat outside Madrid he bought in February 1819.   That villa was called Quinta del Sordo, ‘the house of the deaf man’, not after Goya himself, but because a deaf farmer had previously lived in the district.    It was here that the 75 year old Goya painted 14 separate paintings over a total of 55 square yards of wall,. The subjects include a witches Sabbath, a pilgrimage, scenes of the Fates flying through the air, another picture of two witches flying towards a huge mountain, while down below two Napoleonic soldiers try to shoot them down.  There are a lot of haunting eyes in these scenes.  Black is the dominant colour.   As brilliant and original as these paintings are, it’s hard to understand why Goya wanted to fill his summer house with such darkness.  The most famous and harrowing image is of Saturn eating his child, crazed with fear and despair.
The precise interpretation of these scenes may remain a mystery, but their impact on the history of art has is undeniable.  The paintings were removed from the walls, and exhibited in Paris in 1878, when they were considered the work of a madman.  However, the Impressionists admired them greatly.  The influence of these coruscating paintings can be seen in Surrealists like Salvador Dali, in the work of Francis Bacon, and in other twentieth century expressionists.
A year after that exhibition of Goya’s paintings in Paris, the artist Paul Klee was born in Switzerland. I love his paintings, and when I worked in Geneva at the WHO, I went as often as I could to the Zentrum Paul Klee on the edge of Berne.   For me, Klee’s work is associated with delicacy.  His watercolours seem suffused with music.  It was Klee, after all, who described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’. His paintings give me a sense of joy.  He once wrote "the picture has no particular purpose. It only has the purpose of making us happy". 
There’s a photograph of Klee from 1935 which I really like. He is standing next to his wife Lily, wearing his dressing gown and holding his pipe. He has the trace of a smile on his face, and his cat, Bimbo, is climbing down from his shoulders.
But 1935 was the year that Paul Klee suffered two disasters.  The first came as a result of the Nazi rise to power.  Klee was dismissed from his post as a Professor of Art at the Bauhaus school of art, and the school was closed down.  Paul and Lily emigrated to Berne, Switzerland, leaving friends and artistic colleagues behind.  Afterwards, he was labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and his work compared to that of people with schizophrenia.
Also in 1935, Klee contracted measles.  By autumn he was suffering the symptoms of scleroderma. The condition is a chronic systemic autoimmune disease, predominantly affecting the skin, but also the heart, lungs and kidneys. The stress of his treatment by the Nazis may have contributed to the disease.  In that era, there was no treatment available, although Klee visited several health spas to try and relieve the illness.  The scleroderma would have caused him considerable pain, and it meant the end of two of his favourite occupations -  playing the violin and going for long walks in the mountains.  
In the initial health crisis, Klee's creative output fell away.  In 1936, he only made 25 works.  But astonishingly, by 1937, his health had stabilized, and he was able to work again.  In 1938, he made 482 works and in 1939, he made 1, 253 pictures.  It was as if he was racing against time.   As he wrote in a letter to his dealer, “As I’m no longer young, I would like to realize whatever I can.  This requires a constant willingness to avail oneself of every opportunity. In short, utter concentration.” 
This final flowering of Paul Klee’s art was different.  He made fewer paintings, and more drawings.  Some pictures still retain his childlike experimentation, for example  "Children's game".  But many of these late works feature thick black hieroglyphs, which in a letter to his son he called “secret codes”.   Whereas before, all was fluid and graceful, now the rhythm is more ominous. The lines are hobbling: no longer do they go for a stroll.   Maybe this comment from Klee is relevant:  “He has found his style when he cannot do otherwise”.
The subjects are darker too, with a preoccupation with fate and illness.  For example, in his last year, his "Eidola" series of drawings depict archetypal figures existing in a realm between life and death. A photograph of Paul Klee from February 20 1940, a few months before his death, shows how his skin has been affected by his disease, his mouth is set in the tight line of one suffering pain, and there is a haunted look in his eyes.  With his shrunken, masklike face, he looks much older than 60.  A self-portrait drawing that he did at this time, probably taken from this photograph, was entitled “Endure!”.  Another drawing shows a person with the crippled hands and masklike face of someone with scleroderma, although the title “A Creator” shows how Klee maintains his identity even under the onslaught of chronic illness.   One of his last works “Death and Fire” shows a stick person grimacing, his face white against an orange red sky.   The lines that form his eye, nose and mouth also spell out the German word Tod, for death.    As with Goya, we can’t be sure whether this powerful image reflected Paul Klee’s personal suffering, or his anguish at the destruction brought about by war.   
So far, these stories of late onset disability have been all about horror and pain.  But here’s a more optimistic engagement.  Earlier this year, I managed to get to Tate Modern on the final day of the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs.  Half a million people visiting this blockbuster dedicated to the joyful, lyrical dancing figures and patterns that were the work of Henri Matisse’s later years. 
Earlier in his career, Matisse had used cut paper to help with colour choices for a mural, and in 1936 he made a cut paper cover for the magazine Cahiers d’Art.  But his adoption of cut-outs as his medium in the post-war period was necessitated by his health, not freely chosen.  Aged 71, he had undergone surgery for cancer in 1941, resulting in a colostomy and the loss of stomach muscles.  From then on, he spent much time in bed, and relied on a wheelchair to get around.  This meant that it was impossible for him to paint freely as he had before.  Faced with these restrictions, he turned again to the decoupage technique, first painting and then cutting shapes, which his assistant could pin and re-pin to the wall of his room, until he was satisfied with the effect.
In a 1952 interview, Matisse explained: “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… there are leaves, fruits, a bird”.  His cut paper took the form of undersea creatures, stars, as well as abstract compositions.    This work is full of life and joy, although it has sometimes been dismissed as being more about decoration than art.  Some have seen the cut-outs as no more than a delightful distraction from the real paintings.  To me, this seems snobbery.   There is a direct line from the famous 1909 and 1910 pictures of Dance, with those red primeval figures cavorting in a ring, to the Acrobats and Blue Nudes which Matisse cut out in the 1940s.   He is still making very careful choices about line and shape and above all, colour.   Every child has now made a cut paper picture in nursery school, just as a mobile hangs above her bed.  But this does not make the Matisse cut-outs or the mobiles first designed by Alexander Calder any less original or significant in the history of art.  
From his hotel bedroom, Matisse designed the Chapel of the Rosary for a community of Dominican nuns in Vence in the south of France.  He did the stained glass windows and the murals and the bell tower and the altar crucifix and candlesticks and the holy water stoups and even the firework patterns of the priest’s vestments. This huge undertaking of his final decade, which he made so feverishly, was no less intense and no less important than his early paintings.   In his swansong, he achieved a new boldness and simplicity, forced to concentrate on the things that mattered – line, shape and colour.  With his dressmaking scissors, he cut as deliberately and as carefully as he had once painted.  The success of 83 year old Matisse’s new approach to making art reminds us that often the adversity of disability can prompt resourcefulness, and that adaptation can generate new possibilities.
For Matisse, a different creative technique, forced on him by his disability, opened up new possibilities for creating joy in old age.   For Goya, isolation imposed on him by deafness combined with the revulsion he felt at conflict and corruption to generate the horrors of the Casa del Sordo.  For Klee, pain and suffering could not stop him painting and drawing, but his work became heavier and more deeply felt than before.  Each artist was forced by age and illness to do things differently.  All of them showed how wrong it would be prematurely to write off disabled people.  This is what Desmond O’Neill has called the art of the demographic dividend, and it should give us hope for our own old age.

5 comments:

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  2. "Disability" sounds all too arbitrary and pedantic? "Inability" might be a much more pragmatic description of everyones lives and encompass the need for intervention in all manner of self-inflicted, cognitive deficits such as sloppy thinking, insensitivity, psychopathy, as well as sickness from reckless personal lifestyle choices and the all too pervasive, general stupidity?

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  3. Tom I am an artist and I just listened to your radio four talk.
    I want to suggest that you consider a different perspective.
    Although you never mentioned it explicity, I sense that behind your philosophy is an understandable distaste for ranking human beings into a hierarchy. An extreme hierarchical view of human beings was characterised by the evil of the Nazis.
    But I want to suggest an opposite perspective an extremely flat view of humanity that not only regards all humans as equal but emphasises that we are animals with much in common with other sentient beings.
    I also dispute your emphasis on the rights of parents. I believe our focus should always be on the child.
    If you recognise that human are remarkable animals and you prioritise the child then I believe you come to very different conclusions.
    I remember when I was working at Goldsmiths College I was taken to the unit of a local hospital looking after severely disabled young people. These were people with very limited brain function, quite possibly less than a domestic animal. They were strapped into wheel chairs and showed every sign of constant physical and emotional distress.
    If you kept you pet cat in such a situation, you would be rightly regarded as self indulgent and extremely cruel.
    But humans are animals too and why should our actions be so very different ?
    The Nazis considered the master race, disabled people to them were less than human. But I am suggesting that we primarily consider the disabled child. If I euthinize my cat I don't do it because I consider her an inferior being, I do it because I love and respect her and want to put her out of her misery. I am not thinking of myself, I am thinking of her.
    In the case of an unborn child you are very much in the same position. An unborn child has less ability to express an opinion than a cat, so the parent has to make the decision in the best interests of the child.
    It is possible to have a fulfilled life if you are deaf, blind, short or with Downs Syndrome but if the child faces a life of constant pain and distress and an early undignified death from an untreatable condition, then I believe a parent would be cruel and self indulgent not to terminate the pregnancy.
    When you think of humans as animals, the moral choices become easier.

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