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THE IMPACT OF SURGERY ON FINE ART GEORGE STIRLING* Art changes but does not improve, surgery both changes and improves , were it not so, fine art would be much diminished. One can only speculate on the aesthetic pleasure denied to art lovers because disease has impaired artists' creativity or caused their premature deaths. But for surgery, the loss would have been so much greater. Although this account of cases of surgical interest among eminent nineteenth and twentieth century artists includes surgical failures, these are far surpassed by successes, leaving no doubt of the debt fine art owes to surgery. It was said of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) that "time and extraordinary energy at the service of one of the great creative talents of our century have produced a body of work so vast and so varied that it cannot properly be reviewed on a scale ordinarily devoted to the achievement of a living artist" [I]. No less than thirteen years of that time were made possible by surgery. By 1940 Matisse's health had so declined that he could work only four hours a day. In March, 1941, he was taken to a hospital in Lyons where he was operated on for an "intestinal obstruction" [1], a "malignant tumor" [2], or "duodenal cancer" [3]. The last is an unlikely diagnosis, and one can assume that the lesion was a carcinoma of the colon. Postoperative infection required a second operation which permanently damaged the muscles of the abdomen— probably an incisional hernia—so that he could hold himself erect for only limited periods. Soon his creative energy revived, and by June, 1941, although confined to his bed or wheelchair for much of the day, he was working again, on a series of interiors including seated female figures. That he painted in bed, as recorded in a photograph [1], is a measure of Matisse's deep-rooted creative vitality. There followed an outpouring of paintings, drawings, book illustrations, papiers découpé, and his crowning achievement—the creation and decoration of the *Address: 50 Cyprus Road, Nottingham, NG3 5EB, England.© 1993 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/93/3701-0837$0 1 .00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 37, 1 ¦ Autumn 1993 | 67 Chapel of the Rosary at Vence [1-4]. He enjoyed a felicitous old age and left this testimony to surgery, "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 I am in a second life" [2]· Successful surgery also prolonged the life of artist Emil Nolde (1867— 1956). The art of the deeply religious Nolde sprang from the vast windswept meadows and marshlands of the north German plain which his Frisian ancestors had farmed for years. He took his surname from his birthplace. It was through color that Nolde expressed his emotions in hauntingly beautiful landscapes, flower studies, religious paintings, and figure compositions. In the thirties Nolde had two major problems, both of which were to be resolved by surgery. One was the branding of his work as degenerate art by the Nazis although he hadjoined the National Socialist Party in 1933 [3, 5, 6]. This led to the secret production of some 1,300 small watercolors, the "unpainted pictures" as he entitled them. The second problem was that in 1932 he began to suffer from the symptoms of what was eventually diagnosed as cancer of the stomach. A successful operation and weeks of hospital care allowed him to outlive the Third Reich and to transform nearly a hundred of the "unpainted pictures" into oil paintings. Not only that, but following his "unexpected " recovery from surgery a lyrical quality began to manifest itself in his art, as in Reflections where land, sea, and sky are enveloped in a radiant blue and the long northern twilight pervades everything with a magic glow [5]. Nolde died at age eighty-eight, the Grand Old Man of German Art, and a long-lived tribute to surgery. The work of the Swiss-born sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (1901—1966), exemplified in his emaciated, elongated, human forms, was interrupted at various times...


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