The Snail (L'Escargot) by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Published 04/02/2013 | 06:00
Gouache on papier-decoupe 1953 Tate Gallery, London
"Oh, I'm useless at painting. I couldn't draw to save my life." How often have you said that, heard that? But think back to when you were small and you messed about with paints. Adults cooed and said you were wonderful. What happens to us as we grow older? An artist was once asked, "When did you start painting?" and the artist replied, "When did you stop?"
Henri Matisse painted all his life – conventional subjects such as interiors and women, women, women, but his command of colour was revolutionary. In old age, when he could no longer manage a brush and canvas, he turned to paper and scissors. With the aid of an assistant, he managed to make his mark in a different medium. Papier-decoupe is the fancy term for bits of cut-up paper and at first glance this beautiful piece seems to have little or nothing to do with its title: The Snail.
It's a large work, square in shape and within its orange borders there is a range of bright colours.
But just look at that striking, angled black. And yet the circular seems to fit in so neatly within the square. This is a childlike work but never childish. It contains mystery and wonder and beauty. Though abstract, it has a very realistic title and the viewer can see that spiralling snail shell moving slowly within the space. This slow movement is determined by the shape and size of individual pieces of paper, blocks of colour and their angled pattern.
It's not at all like a snail and so like a snail.
It echoes the Cubist movement and looks ahead to Abstraction, and the spiral shape is a shape frequently associated with ideas of harmony and completion.
A snail is small and vulnerable, and often seen as the enemy. The French, of course, like them so much that they eat them. Carrying its house on its back, the little creature, like this art work, is perfectly made and contained. Shaped by an 84-year-old, wheel-chair-bound Matisse in 1953, a year before he died, his imagination glowed and he continued creating to the end.
Way to go.