A Snail’s Pace | Corinne Purtill
The Snail, Henri Matisse
In January 1941, after a lifetime of abdominal pains, Henri Matisse readied himself for an operation to remove fourteen inches of his ruined colon. Prudently, given the risks of radical surgery in prewar France, he also prepared to die. Amid the letters and bequests, he expressed to his doctors a wish for three more years of life—the time needed, he believed, “to bring my work to a conclusion.”
Matisse did not die. He lived for thirteen more years, and this “second life,” as he called it, birthed one of his most creative periods. Unable to stand at an easel to paint, Matisse began experimenting with paper cutouts, a technique he’d used to map out drafts of his canvases. From his bed or wooden wheelchair, Matisse guided surgically sharp scissors through painted paper: not with snip-snips, but the seamless, satisfying shrrrr of shears running through lamination.
The result was the most joyful and powerful work of his career—the kinetic vibrance of Creole Dancer, the zaftig aquanaut of The Swimmer in the Tank, Icarus’s suspended flight. And he knew it. “I feel as if I had come back from the dead,” Matisse wrote to his son. “It changes everything. Time present and time future are an unexpected bonus.”
Expecting to die, and then not dying, is one of humanity’s great experiences. There is a sense of peeking behind a curtain one wasn’t supposed to lift, of brushing past God in a backstage corridor and seeing Him in curlers and robe. It recasts the time that comes after it, bestowing with a magician’s flourish all the amazing hours there are in a day that isn’t consumed with pain, or fear, or the intolerable dullness of waiting for a body to heal.
I read Alastair Sooke’s book on Matisse’s late renaissance after buying a ticket to the Tate Modern’s exhibit of the cutouts in London, where I live. In Matisse’s breathless dispatches from his second chance, I recognized a fellow traveler in what the doctor and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee calls “the kingdom of the ill.”
Two months earlier, on a flight from London to Los Angeles, I went to the airplane bathroom and the toilet filled with my blood. This surprised me. I felt no pain. I was thirty-three years old and in good health. Bleeding to death felt nothing like I thought it would, which is why I refused to go to the hospital until the next morning, after several more bowlsful of my innards had flushed away and my overcompensating heart was beating insistently.
I spent nine days in the hospital. I remember it as a beige prison accented with red: the sleek coil of a transfusion line, and the uninhibited, algae-like forms blood takes as it spills from a body into a bowl, or onto a sheet, or sometimes—when leaving a person with the frenzy of a crowd exiting a burning theater—splattered against a wall. I received twelve blood transfusions, enough to replace all the blood in my body at least once, before doctors decided that this was not the beginning of my final illness but a continuation of an old one.
I have Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that will slowly rot my intestines over the course of my life. Months or years of normalcy pass, and then a messy, ugly flare of pain, blood, and gastrointestinal havoc lay me low. It is a persistent and insidious little bastard. If I am a typical patient, the fancy new drugs will staunch the tide of blood for a few years, and then they won’t. Then I’ll take a newer drug, until that stops working, and then they’ll start to cut away the parts of my intestine the disease has turned to bloody lace (shrrr, the satisfaction of scissors moving through a yielding medium). Until then I will love every hour of my life that belongs to me and not to illness, with intensity I didn’t know before death crossed my path, smirked, and waved me on.
History seems not to have preserved Matisse’s official diagnosis, but the end was not all that different from the fate that may await my gut. And so I arrived at the museum on the Thames with a ticket and far more interest in a Fauvist master’s digestive history than anyone should have.
Admirers have praised Matisse’s cutouts for their pioneering expression of movement, color, and three-dimensional energy in a two-dimensional medium. That’s all true, I’m sure, but what I saw on the walls was gratitude. The pictures—exuberant, joyful, unapologetic pictures—validated something I’d felt since the renewal of my own lease on life, that the gift is not just the time but the recognition of how precious it is. Maybe things become special once we’ve seen their limits defined—health, time, a sheet of gouache-painted paper. Would Matisse’s last years have been as productive had he viewed them as an entitlement instead of a bonus? Would the colors on those walls be as brilliant to me, were I not aware of how nearly I’d never seen them? I wandered the exhibit dopily, happily, hearing the same song in every frame: thank you, thank you, I’m here, I’m here.
I lingered in front of The Snail, a vague spiral of asymmetric colored blocks that looks nothing like a snail to me. People settled against the walls to watch it like a street performer. In the crowded room I allowed myself to imagine a winking moment of connection with the old man across years and space: two people in their fragile shells, reveling in time.
Corinne Purtill is a journalist. She lives with her family in London.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.