Henri Matisse’s The Snail and the Key Qualities of Abstract Art
Sep 8, 2018
“The Snail” (1953) was completed the year before Matisse died. It is considered his last major “cut-out,” and also, a masterpiece. To Matisse, though, who was tireless in his prolific output, it was perhaps just another artwork, something he forgot about as soon as he finished it so he could move on to the next piece. Yet to those who have seen “The Snail” in person, it is a haunting, even unforgettable image that exemplifies the height of Modernist abstraction. The piece is about three meters square, twice as tall as most viewers. It consists of colored shapes pasted to a white background. Each shape is cut from a piece of gouache colored paper. The shapes are arranged in a loose spiral—an expression of the shell of a snail. Matisse also gave the work a second title: “La Composition Chromatique,” or “The Chromatic Composition.” This second title holds mystery. Most writers assume Matisse intended it as a reference to the colors. He did, after all, select perfectly complimentary hues for the piece, creating a visual composition that is vibrant and joyous. Yet while the word chromatic is indeed often used to mean something that relates to color, it also has a musical connotation—as does the word composition. In music, a chromatic scale includes all 12 notes that can be played on a standard piano. It is a complete, all encompassing scale. When looking at “The Snail,” many viewers perceive 12 hues to be present. Could Matisse have been referencing music as well as color with this secondary title? One thing is certain, by assigning both titles to this piece, Matisse endowed it with both figurative and abstract qualities, adding rich layers ripe for interpretation, and making “The Snail” an ideal artwork to use as a study in the key qualities of abstract art.
“The Snail” was purchased by the Tate in London in 1962. Fourteen years later, the museum received a letter from Mme Lydia Delectorskaya, an exiled Russian who was a model, studio assistant, and career manager for Matisse in his later years. The letter describes the creation of “The Snail.” It quotes Matisse: “I first of all drew the snail from nature, holding it. I became aware of an unrolling, I found an image in my mind purified of the shell, then I took the scissors.” Within this simple sentence is a poetic summation of the entire career of Matisse. He first of all worked from nature, painting figurative pictures. His mimicry of nature then unravelled as he explored the dynamic abstract qualities of color. He simplified, paring his work down to purified images such as “The Dance II” (1932), a mural in the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, or “Reclining Nude” (1935), for which Mme Delectorskaya modeled. Finally, he “took the scissors,” transforming his method of working after finding that he could no longer paint after complications from duodenal cancer surgery.
That phrase, “took the scissors,” refers to the cut-out collage technique Matisse developed while infirmed. Wheel-chair bound, he prescribed the exact colors he wanted to use to assistants, who then painted pieces of paper in those colors in gouache. Matisse cut into the papers with scissors, shaping the paper to suit his imagination. He directed his assistants in the creation of precise compositions on panels hung on the wall. This evolution, from painting to cut-outs, was born of necessity, but it was also a perfect Modernist gesture, for it stripped away the falsehoods of drawing shapes and then painting color into them, allowing for a more honest process in which method, medium, and material became one. “The Snail” is furthermore considered a particularly profound Modernist statement because the spiral pattern on a snail shell, what Matisse referred to as the “unrolling,” references The Golden Ratio, a compositional strategy frequently used in early abstract art that is considered an expression of universal harmony in nature.
The Snail (Left) and Memory of Oceania (Right) exhibited at Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, 2014. © Tate Modern
Color and Music
By assigning “The Snail” the additional title of “La Composition Chromatique,” Matisse opened the door for the piece to be considered not only according to its narrative representational qualities, but also according to its purely formal aesthetic terms. This choice was an acknowledgment by the artist that he embraced the ways in which his work could be interpreted both ways by viewers. It was perceived both ways by him, and he clearly wanted us to open our minds to both points of view as well. Seen as simply a concrete, formal assemblage of colors and shapes, the work declares a range of emotional and physical qualities, like jubilation, energy, and movement. The flatness of the image competes in subtle ways with the dimensional aspects of the layered papers. The dark and light hues create illusions of depth.
For those, meanwhile, who wish to contemplate the musical qualities of “La Composition Chromatique,” it is a pleasure to look more deeply at the various hues present in the work. How many shades of orange are there? How many shades of green? There are 11 shapes in the center of the picture, plus the white background and the orange frame, which is itself made up of at least seven pieces. Depending on how your brain perceives color, there might be as many as 19 different hues. But most people see nine distinct hues in the center, plus white, plus two additional orange hues in the frame. Those 12 hues meander lyrically around the composition, paying homage to another great Modernist notion: that abstract visual elements are akin to music. All together, these various ways of relating to this masterpiece add up to a master class in how to interact with abstract art. This one cut-out is part painting, part relief sculpture, part concrete, part lyrical, part geometric, part figurative, and part abstract. It is all of these things, and none of these things. In its multiplicity it embodies the mystery of the belief Matisse once expressed, that “Exactitude is not truth.”
Featured image: Henri Matisse - The Snail, 1953. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas. 287 cm × 288 cm (112 3⁄4 in × 108 in). Tate Modern, London. © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2018
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio