At a snail’s gallop

Two big shows are running in parallel in London: Veronese at the National Gallery and Matisse’s cut-outs at Tate Modern. My son asked me, what was so great about Veronese, after visiting the NG, and then a friend of mine said Matisse’s Snail was something he couldn’t quite get.

I can’t kill these two parallel questions with one post, even though the two artists, who lived 400 years apart, have one important commonality, and it would be nice to run parallel analysis.

Both were great colourists.

You may say, “Wait, I love colour too! Am I a great colourist as well?” Alas, it is not love for colour that makes an artist a great colourist, but the goal which the artist wants to achieve using colour, and whether the artist is successful or not in achieving it.

Veronese was successfully creating the impression of vibrant life by innovatively colouring clothes of his characters, as well as twisting their bodies in what today would be considered “torture of modeling personnel”, and making their hands bristle with disproportionately long fingers. Veronese was illustrating his own view of life; his colours were a tool to send across his thoughts and ideas into the minds of observers.

Matisse was making a visual stimulus for the observers to recreate life in their own minds. Observers were meant to discover movement through a conflict of colours; to explore relationships between differently coloured cut-out pieces and arrive at their own ideas.

Veronese: Allegory of Love series, 1575 and Marisse: Sorrow of the kings, 1952
Veronese: Allegory of Love series, 1575 and Matisse: Sorrow of the kings, 1952

At the end of the day, the impact of Matisse’s works is much stronger than what Veronese could possibly do. Matisse’s strange shapes can prompt associations and personal memories that have more emotions attached to them than an unknown Venetian lady draped in a heavy velvet curtain.

The “drawback” of Matisse is that the brain finds his “colour forms” more difficult to comprehend and classify than Veronese’s mythical or Biblical characters. Veronese’s Venetian ladies are easy (in terms of pattern-recognition, that is); Matisse requires hard work. 

Some of Matisse’s cut-outs are relatively simple to interpret, like The Fall of Icarus, and some are seemingly impregnable abstractions, like The Snail.

I first thought I’d flex my muscles on The Fall of Icarus before taking on The Snail, but then I realised that Matisse’s Icarus is primarily not about colour, but the artist’s view of life, the Universe, and everything. Icarus deserves a separate post.

So, The Snail! 

jty142-5-3It is a large composition, as can be seen from this photograph, in which a couple of art lovers pore over a wall plaque with the title, thinking, “What the heck is the meaning of this exhibit?”

Matisse himself renamed it after it was completed into “Chromatic Composition”. Not because it stopped reminding him of a snail, but because it was not, as we’ll soon see, an attempt at snail representation. But “snail” is short, tasty, and the painting does resemble a spiral, so the original title stuck.

Before we zoom onto The Snail, let’s see some of its effects on innocent people, whose perceptions have not been spoilt by too much education: children.

When kids interpret The Snail, they come up with this:


Matisse’s work becomes an inspiration that allows kids to build their own, very individual worlds from the building blocks he provided in The Snail. As I said before, Matisse didn’t want to represent life through a snail; he helped people in the creation of their own and very lively worlds.

If you have a kid aged 5+, ask him or her to think of The Snail as a set of Lego blocks, and offer to build-paint their favourite place using them. 

Now we can go for a large version of The Snail and then answer the question, HOW DID MATISSE MAKE IT POSSIBLE FOR PEOPLE TO BECOME INSPIRED IN SUCH PRODUCTIVE WAY?

The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954

I will give you four hints to think about it (while I will be entertaining you with Matisse’s Icarus). After the promised post on Icarus I’ll be back with answers.

Hint A: Matisse used complimentary colours, that is, “opposites” on the colour wheel.



Complimentary colors are known to provide the kind of visual harmony for which we love nature:


But Matisse is also using black and white, which are the sum or the absence of all the colours, depending on whether you think of colour as a wave-length phenomenon or a pigment.

Hint B:


Hint C:



Hint D:

What Tate itself has to say on The Snail is not just wrong. It is the opposite to what Matisse wanted to achieve. Just think of an artist who knows his time is up. Would he be interested, in his last year, to play with dance movements? The greatest colourist of the 20th century wanted to create worlds in the mind of the observer, not pinch at the few neurons tasked with holding info on dancing moves. I didn’t write the introduction to this article for nothing.

At the very least, were it indeed about dance, there’d be no orange frame.

Now you have to make a quantum logical leap to a conclusion about WHAT MATISSE WANTED TO GIVE US IN THE SNAIL?


  1. Хотел добавить, что изображенная здесь спираль – это не просто абстракция, некий условный знак спирали. Она изображена точно – понятно, в каком направлении она заветвляется и куда именно уходит – в бесконечность черного…
    И тут, мне кажется, Матисс копает даже еще глубже, чем просто указывая на загадку сосуществования двух противоположных начал, как вы пишете: a living body inside a dead harmonious shell. Тут не просто стереотип противопоставления платоновской души (некоего живого и дающего жизнь начала), заключенной в гробницу тела, или, скажем, христианский мотив: когда объективные законы природы понимаются как модуляция темы грехопадения и богооставленности, где душа, элемент вечной жизни, просто отдана на откуп неким внешним силам, природным стихиям… А у Матисса здесь сама жизнь в своей сердцевине (спираль) подчинена неким неорганическим, вселенским принципам, безотносительным к живому, в силу их универсальности, математичности (золотое сечение)… То есть не как чужеродную оболочку, но вот она в себе сама их и заключает, в самой себе несет смерть как свой закон. И живое – это какое-то мимолетное чудо на поверхности бытия, не имеющее вроде бы даже никакого основания в самом себе…

    p.s. извините, я всегда с большим опозданием читаю блоги, поэтому часто реагирую несвоевременно; ваше продолжение о Матиссе пока еще не смотрел, но решил откликнуться уже на то ,что нашел здесь.

    1. Спасибо за ваш интереснейший комментарий) Пока пост-отгадка еще не опубликован. Я только еще одну подсказку сделал, вот тут:

      На этой неделе, думаю, допишется. Кажется мне, что Матисс не переставал удивляться жизни (кто еще в восемьдесят лет будет улитку вырисовывать, держа ее в одной руке и рисуя другой), но относился он к ней как ребенок-художник. Собственно, поэтому и отклик на его работы у детей часто гораздо более непосредственный и эмоциональный, чем у взрослых.

      Встретимся на продолжении! )

  2. Loved your insight. Spirals are also sometimes symbols of journey and change. These cut outs were such huge departures from his earlier works. Maybe his spiral helps represent those progressions within his career.

  3. I loved your article and absolutely adore Matisse. He is one of my favorites. I dabble in painting, myself. When going through a tough time in my life, I painted my first “real” painting, one I was actually proud of. It started as a wave but turned into a very deep spiral, felt like entering a tunnel (and the canvas is very big). Being into symbols and the golden ratio, I did some research into what the spiral symbolizes. I guess my background in psychology and need to dig up archetypes was also behind this. The spiral is a very common theme throughout nature and the psychology of man. Here’s a good blurb I found…

    “Life cycles and cycles of the natural world create change. The old dies away so the new can come forth. Each of us progresses from child to adult to old age. As such, the spiral is not a symbol of stagnation but rather of change, progression, and development. It embraces these things as good and healthy and helps one to accept change eve though we often are more comfortable retreating into tradition and old, standard ways.
    Spirals are sometimes seen as watery symbols. Water is mutable, always changing and not having permanence. It also ripples in circles. Finally, water is a feminine element along with earth. (In comparison, fire and air are masculine elements.)”

    I think Matisse could have been dealing with his inevitable transition from life to death, hence the obsession with the snail/spiral shape.

    🙂 Keep up the awesome work

    1. Well, first of all, let me thank you for getting involved into the topic with such enthusiasm and so many smart ideas! I’ll get back to the essence of your comment shortly )

    2. What I think really happened between Matisse and snails.

      Matisse was painstakingly drawing snails from life, holding them with one hand and drawing with the other. He was doing it, in his own words, to penetrate deep into the essence of The Snail. This is, actually, what Kandinsky claimed he was doing with autumn leaves and road puddles, and it also led him to colourful abstraction.

      I don’t think Matisse was playing with any esoteric notions. He was very much into harmony, as an idea, almost all his life. So, I think a snail represented the image of a living harmony, built around its major principle: the golden ratio. A snail is a living body inside a dead harmonious shell. He was most interested in how this is possible, how did the two co-existed.
      When I am back with the answer to all my riddles, I will be writing more about it.

      1. Thanks so much for that insightful reply. I think you’re definitely on to something. So filled with mysteries are the works of the greats.

  4. I prefer the Veronese. The kids seemed to be able to reproduce the Matisse fairly accurately. No way they can equal the Veronese.

    1. I urge you to think it over again )
      What if someone reproduces Veronese (and the only difficulty is that Veronese couldn’t draw or paint really properly until the age of 40-45, so the reproducer would have cringe each time (s)he’s have to make an obvious error after error)? It would be a repetition of Veronese, not creation of something new. In many ways it would be a waste of 6 years at art uni, talent, time, and oil paints.

      Look closer: kids do not reproduce Matisse, they’re creating something else, which is very individual for each kid’s drawing.

      Matisse stimulates individual creative processes. Kids on average react to Matisse better than adults, because their imagination is not spoilt by education )

      Reproducing Veronese is looking back. Creating something new with Matisse as inspiration is looking forward. I hope I could in the posts on Matisse that I’ve planned as continuation, to present this idea in a clear way.

      Thank you for being honest! Honest reaction is the single most valuable thing in art appreciation )

      1. I see where you are coming from, however, I still prefer the Veronese. There are some Matisse that I like as well but not the one you have here.

  5. I love love matisse! You’ve made me think. To me the snail represents his life in Nice with the colours of the the buildings and the sea and the black represents his death.

    1. That would be a way too obvious, I mean Black representing death. Also, it comes on top of everything which is totally not Matisse. He wouldn’t want death to be on top of things. Again, if it is death, the white colour loses meaning ) I am happy this post made you think. You don’t have to arrive to any immediate answers – and, quite frankly, immediate answers are not possible with Matisse. Immediate reactions, yes, quite often. But his depth opens up at a fraction an hour )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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