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The art of ageing

Whether you're a maker or a player, or just worried about getting old, you should see the Matisse cut-outs exhibition

Blue Nude (II) 1952 Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Droits réservés © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2013

The Matisse cut-outs exhibition at London’s Tate Modern finishes this weekend, and if you haven’t already seen it, I urge you to go forthwith. You will have to pay £16 (when did art get so expensive?) and you’ll be rammed into the exhibition rooms like sheep (when did art get so popular?) but it’ll be worth it. I went this week and was overwhelmed. The inventiveness, vibrancy, variety and sheer colour are astonishing.

Matisse started cutting out coloured paper as a technique in his 60s, as ill health made it hard for him to paint, and he continued right up until his death at the age of 84, in 1954. These works go right up to the end of his life, but you wouldn’t know it for the energy he channels, whether he’s creating geometric shapes, imaginary plant forms, scenes from his Jazz or Dancers series, or reworking his Blue Nude paintings.

You see him experimenting with his techniques and learning quickly how to master the physical aspect of cutting the paper to the right shape and laying it on to the paper. In the Blue Nude room, for example, you see the first time he tried to make the nude shape work – a patchwork of many little pieces of the painted paper. By the next version, he’s entirely confident in the technique and brings the nude to life in minimal number of pieces and cuts. At this age, he is still learning steeply, driven and adaptable.

Guadagnini scroll with chisel marks

I had in mind something that Natalie Clein told me when I interviewed her a few weeks back. She plays the ‘Simpson’ Guadagnini of 1777, from relatively late in the maker’s career and she said: ‘I love it because it’s a late work, and in the way of late Brahms or late Beethoven, they don’t care any more about fancy edges. They want the substance of the thing to be told and they don’t have much time to tell it – you can see the chisel marks in the scroll, for example. There’s the semblance of a late, great master.’ There may also be a parallel with Stradivari, who well into advancing years and past his golden period, was still experimenting and synthesising his accumulated knowledge, even if there are signs of deteriorating dexterity.

Indeed, with the Matisse cut-outs, if you go up close you see the nicks and the imperfect edges and the way the colour has been painted on to the paper. But step back and that one single scissor stroke completely signifies the substance of what Matisse has in mind, whether it’s a dancer straining or a horse rearing or a naked lady languishing.

Substance, power, efficiency, creative vitality: maybe there are benefits to ageing after all.

UPDATE The Matisse exhibition runs at New York's MoMA gallery from 12 October to 8 February.

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