How Henri Matisse (and I) Got a ‘Beautiful Body’

I had an unforgettable feeling of embodiment once, when my teeth smashed through my lower left cheek. I was a professional skater training to qualify for the X Games. Skating fast down a long incline, I slipped on some water and ended up Supermanning 10 feet through the air before slamming headfirst into the side of a skate ramp. I went to the emergency room, got stitched up and went back to the competition. When I look at my scar in a shop window or a mirror, or feel it with my tongue from the inside, I don’t experience it as a site of trauma or a disfigurement. I remember the joy and thrill of flying through the air.

No doubt this puts me in a minority. To most, a beautiful body is a healthy body, and the pleasures of treating the body well — massaging, cleansing, moistening, resting — are seen as ends in themselves, sure sources of calm, confidence, love, and joy.

But there is a limit to the happiness we can find in maintaining what is generally accepted as a healthy or beautiful body: If you are fortunate enough to live a long life, your body will break down. And it is not only age that can have its way with our bodies. Illness, accident or disability can quickly put an end to that bodily source of happiness. What then?

As a professor of philosophy exploring important life questions with my students — most of them young people whose conception of the world is more likely to be shaped by social media and corporate messaging than by the occasional course in philosophy — this is one I return to often: How can we come to understand the full range of the body’s aesthetic potential and power?

I like to tell them about Henri Matisse.

The installation of Henri Matisse’s “The Swimming Pool” at the Museum of Modern Art.Credit…2019 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Around 1940, when Matisse, the revolutionary French painter, was 71, his doctors found that he had an abdominal obstruction (a result of a hernia he’d had as a child) and a potentially cancerous tumor in his colon. They assumed his condition was fatal, but held out hope for a risky surgery. It worked and gave him 13 more years of life.

Those years, however, would be very unlike the previous 71. After the surgery, his mobility was severely restricted, and he spent a lot of time in bed. He suffered from fevers, exhaustion and the effects of various medications. All of this made painting next to impossible. These physical difficulties were matched by the doubts he had about the direction of his art. Feeling as though he had gone as far as he could go with oil painting, Matisse found that everything in his life was an open question.

At that time — long before progressive ideas about disability were widely accepted — Matisse might have been expected to see his new condition as a sort of tragedy, a reason to give up. He didn’t. Instead his loss was transformative: “My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me. I had so completely prepared for my exit from life that it seems to me that I am in a second life.”

Matisse transformed himself by transforming his work and turning to collage. With the help of assistants, he would apply paint to paper, then cut out and arrange the pieces into works that ranged from small to almost monumental, abstract to symbolic or representational. Matisse called them “gouaches découpées,” or “gouache cutouts” (gouache being the type of paint). He regarded them as the culmination of his artistic life: “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” The new limitations of his body became an opportunity for renewal. With paint, scissors and paper, he drew, carved and constructed a new self.

There is a lesson here about what it means to care for the body, to inhabit the bodies we have not merely with acceptance and love, as we are often rightly advised to do. It is a lesson learned when we live through our bodies as vehicles of beauty, as conduits to aesthetic engagement. It is a lesson learned when we practice a radical aesthetic openness to our bodies, to what they can do and produce as time and chance inevitably transform us.

Through our bodies we pour forth much of who we are: through voice, composure, dress, tattoos, piercings, outfits, makeup, hairstyles, shoes, glasses, songs, books, skate tricks and scars. This is how we communicate and fan out into the world, into, onto and with other beautiful bodies.

I recently added a brand-new scar to my collection, just below the one on the side of my face. While my infant son was in the natal intensive care unit with a mysterious fever, I got the results of an M.R.I. scan I needed for an old neck injury (from skating). It revealed a large asymmetrical growth on my lingual tonsils, a sign of lymphoma. An urgent surgery removed a plum-size lump of flesh that was blocking most of my airway. I have since met with the oncologist and heard the results. It was caused by a severe bacterial infection and there are no signs of cancer, just a nascent scar and one hell of a sore throat.

Here I am in recovery, in pain, sitting in the strange and welcome light of the knowledge that I will be OK (and so will our baby). I won’t be flying up and down ramps or through the air, but, like Matisse, I will sing through the scar. I will pick up my sons. I will cook for my friends. I will help my students marvel at the complexities of philosophy. I will write about this beautiful body.

Nick Riggle is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and the author of, most recently, “This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive,” from which this essay was adapted.

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