Abstract Critical

The Snail: late Matisse in context

Written by Robin Greenwood

The Snail 1953 Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas support: 2864 x 2870 mm on paper, unique Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962 © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2012

Matisse’s large gouache découpée work from 1953, The Snail, introduces Tate Modern’s latest themed display of abstract painting and sculpture, self-fulfillingly entitled Structure and Clarity (in contradistinction perhaps to Collapse and Obfuscation, disconsolately showing in some dim lower gallery somewhere?).

The Snail is the second work in the display, but the first to be encountered. What I mean by this is that it is hung, as has often been the case, to give sightlines from a distance, out in the corridor. This is a fair idea, but on this occasion it makes for an unfortunate and irresponsible hang; firstly, all the strip lighting in the corridor is reflected in the glazing, an effect disastrous to the contemplation of the work. I ought at this point to say something along the lines of ‘I can’t believe the curators have let this pass’, but unfortunately I’ve seen similar slackness on more than a few occasions at Tate. Worse has been perpetrated on The Snail itself before now; the hang-before-last had the work within loud earshot of Flanagan & Allen’s musical accompaniment to an early piece of G&G twitishness, making it difficult not to run screaming from the building.

The second problem with the hang is that the very first work in the display, encountered as one enters the first room to approach The Snail and then turns to one’s left, is a painting by the venerable Bridget Riley, Deny II, 1967, an almost-monochrome not-very-optical, rather dull greyish work, with ellipses scattering across the surface in varying shades of discomposure. I have thought about this quite a lot, and can’t yet see any remote kind of connection, correspondence or useful comparison between Deny II and The Snail. I realise that it must be difficult to find partners for The Snail from the Tate’s modern collection (more of this later), but this particular combo leaves me completely non-plussed. I dislike the Riley a lot.

Bridget Riley Deny II 1967 PVA emulsion on canvas support: 2172 x 2172 x 40 mm Painting © 2006 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

But what of The Snail; what to make of this piece of giant-size paper-cutting, an endgame not only to Matisse’s cut-out period, but to his whole career? Is it any good? In the context of the Riley, it’s tremendous. In the context of the first parts of the Structure and Clarity display – what follows in the next adjoining room is made to look insipid and feeble by the Matisse – it’s tremendous again. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s fabulous colour, it’s simple bold design… what! Design? And yet it is and it isn’t.

Here’s a quote I recently noticed from Rowan Moore in the Observer, talking about B of the Bang by Thomas Heatherwick:

‘It looked like a sculpture, but you searched in vain for signs of introspection or reflection and intimations of complexity or revelation, such as you might hope for in a real work of art. It was just an exclamation of upbeatness, a logo in 3D.’ 

Actually, it never did look like a sculpture, not for one second; and that it might ever have been considered as such goes to show how degraded the notion of abstract art has become in the eyes of even an intelligent commentator such as Moore. It seems to me an important and relevant question to ask (time and again) about abstract art: what does distinguish it from design? Am I comparing B of the Bang with The Snail? No, but Matisse’s late work does contribute quite prominently, if not iconically, to a certain strand in the conjunction of modernism and abstraction which blurs the distinction between art and design, and more specifically between abstract painting and the decorative and applied arts. A rather large percentage of abstract painting over the last fifty years and more has put itself directly into the visual territory of textiles, quilts and other kinds of decoration. For my money, there is a quite considerable body of the latter which is of greater visual interest and quality than the former. Calling a thing a painting rather than a quilt confers no special status; but the impasse which is currently experienced in abstract art (there is one!) is at least in part due to the downgrading of expectation and ambition for what visual art can really deliver, which is well summarised by Moore’s phrase ‘complexity and revelation’; to the point where a man like Heatherwick can ever be considered to be capable of delivering a large-scale ‘abstract’ public sculpture of any substance.

The Snail is a revered work of modernism, one that takes its subject matter – if it has one – lightly, as modernism supposedly should, and appears to move into areas of spontaneous action, free and clear of ‘introspection or reflection’. It has nothing ostensibly to do with snails, not in a symbolic or realistic way; it has a kind of child-like or poetic approximation to a recognisable image, I suppose, but I find it slips away pretty quickly; and I don’t believe the story of Matisse drawing snails directly has any great bearing on the work. I’m very tempted to ignore ‘snail-ness’ and go with the alternative title Matisse himself gave it – La Composition Chromatique. This certainly implies abstraction, more so than anything else in Matisse’s oeuvre, though it also feels strangely deflating.

I’ve always considered Matisse’s greatest contribution to art not his colour, which is undoubtedly exceptional, but his inventive painterly architectures (in contradistinction to ‘compositions’, I think of ‘architectures’ in painting as spatial constructs not subject to a too-limiting two-dimensionality, and thus perhaps better able to steer clear of ‘design’, though this distinction is simplistic). Of course, those inventive architectures utilise inventive colour, but to a purpose and not for its own sake (is this part of its distinction from design?). On a recent Paris sortie I by chance encountered a handful of Matisses – in different locations, different collections, from different periods – all positioning themselves in different ways at the very focused centre of what painting means; reasserting what it does (what, in a way, it has always done), what it delivers, by the act of continual reinvention; finding yet more new ways to keep it alive – and of course, keep it keenly separate from design and the applied arts even when in the act of using elements of those very disciplines to elaborate and enrich the spatial structures of his painting. What I mean by ‘the focused centre of painting’ of course I couldn’t possibly identify with precision, and I have no wish to be prescriptive about it. Would it pass to say that never did Matisse in my view once fall away from the most direct of paths in painting, experimenting, coaxing and consolidating, under the sway of his grand ambitions for art, detectable from the start of his career? All about him his contemporaries came and went, fell about or fell away, as was apparent on our Paris trip as we made comparisons; his fellow-painters who had started strongly fell into all sorts of cul-de-sac varieties of art (Derain perhaps falling the furthest) as their aspirations shrank. Not once, or if so then not for long, did Matisse deviate, even in the extended sojourn that was Nice. Here is an oft-quoted paragraph from Maurice Denis (from the symbolist journal L’Hermitage, 1905) that better makes my point for me, though it was intended as criticism:

‘What one finds above all, particularly in Matisse, is artificiality; not literary artificiality, which follows from the search to give expression to ideas; nor decorative artificiality, as the makers of Turkish and Persian carpets conceived it; no, something more abstract still; painting beyond every contingency, painting in itself, the pure act of painting …  [B]y abstraction and generalisation, you [he means Matisse] arrive at ideas, at pure forms of paintings. You are only happy when all the elements of your work are intelligible to you. Nothing must remain of the conditional and accidental in your universe: you strip it of everything that does not correspond to the possibilities of expression provided by reason.’

I love that ‘possibilities of expression provided by reason’; what a big, contradictory, all-consuming idea for painting that is. So much for subjectivity.

I have immense admiration for Matisse the painter, but the cut-outs I blow hot and cold about, and end up roundabout luke-warm. Well, some are simply just decorative, are they not? Nothing wrong with that, they decorate the pages of books or make murals out of walls or windows – but are they as good as his best painting? Does it matter if they are not? Is the difference between a certain sort of abstract painting and a certain kind of design a continuum rather than a clear distinction? Certainly I can think of one or two abstract painters who have to a greater or lesser extent built their careers upon the foundations of Matisse’s cut-outs, if not on the very Snail itself.

Let’s get back to context. Or at least, and more interestingly, comparison. I once was lucky enough to see the ‘sister’ work to The Snail, Memory of Oceania, also 1953, in MOMA New York, cheek by jowl with Hans Hofmann’s Cathedral. The latter artist I consistently think of as my favourite abstract painter; and Cathedral is rated as a major work by him. It was made to look very pedestrian next to the Matisse. This is what I wrote at the time:

‘… I’m persuaded to ‘let go’ of the Hofmann, and give myself up to the influence of the more pro-active forms of the Matisse. It just … seems much more engaging, less confrontational. All the parts are different sizes and shapes and orientations, but are in some special kind of coordination of activity. There is a lot of ‘uplift’ and openness about it, and a great deal of what one might lazily describe as movement, but that is not really a correct description of what is going on. It is not the case that the elements of this work are in movement, and certainly not that they are describing movement, as in, say, some Constructivist or Futurist illustration of process. What these elements seem to be doing is allowing us the space to move, in amongst them, allowing us imaginatively to negotiate a route from one place to another, by different ways and different means, sometimes traversing open spaces, sometimes travelling through the forms themselves. The arrangement of forms not only invites us to participate, but carries us around and about without obstacle. Importantly, we move in something rather more stimulating than a two-dimensional space.’

Memory of Oceania is more varied and more spatial, I think, than The Snail. There is far more open irregularity to the arrangement of elements, more variety of sizes, and what I think is an interesting tension between the drawn lines and the cut-out shapes. Most interestingly of all is the kind of imaginative spatial participation invited by the work, as I describe above, which made it a distinctly more physical experience than would seem possible with such a fragile and slender medium, particularly when seen next to Hofmann’s paving-slabs of paint. More physical, because somehow more rounded and three-dimensional, offering something more complex than Hofmann’s booming, backwards and forwards  ‘push-pull’ of colour; of which it had a little of itself, but was not restricted to.

The particularity and depth and variety of the spaces in Memory of Oceania are somehow not matched in The Snail. It is not without space and depth, delivered through colour and shape, but its flatness prevails, perhaps due to the broad orange border, perhaps the regularity in the size of the coloured elements, perhaps most of all the almost-pattern-like arrangement of these parts. And for some, this flatness would be a virtue, a confirmation of the reality of the picture-plane or the materiality of surface; for me it is something of a denial of painting’s full potential. If you think of accompanying this work with a really great painting, instead of its dreary current companions – say, Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge c.1832, to think of an example out of the Tate’s own collection – its deficit of complexity and revelation might well be highlighted, as I imagine it would also be next to one of Matisse’s own painted masterpieces. Seeing it as one does at present, in distinction from some of the lesser lights of the Tate Modern collection – in the present case, firstly the Riley, then some lack-lustre Lipchitz, Hepworth, Brancusi, Gabo (it doesn’t come much worse than Gabo’s Two Cubes [Demonstrating the Stereometric Method]), etc., and trailing off into the further contemporary reaches of this display – it looks a beacon of boldness and genuine visual vigour.

But I am, in truth, unsure of it. I’m unsure what it is doing, I’m unsure of its structure, I’m unsure of it’s being either abstract or figurative; most tellingly, I’m unsure of the quality of its spatial proposal. Somehow, in Tate Modern, I’m always pleased to see it, though I often leave it somewhat perplexed. It often feels like the Tate curators are more than a little unsure of it too. They have got to show it, but it refuses to play their thematic games for them, and they have perhaps yet, at least in recent times, to find a truly constructive context for it; which might after all somehow better illuminate it. In the end, though, context will neither save nor sink an artwork; its intrinsic content is what counts. Can we unwind that content a little for The Snail?

Robin Greenwood
June 2012

  1. Duncan Newton said…

    I was amused by his ability to get an advert for the Poussin Gallery in the first paragraph.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Hey Duncan, awesome comment, and so subtle. If you can put together more than 18 words at once, we’d like you to write for abstractcritical.

  2. Kelvin Harvey said…

    Maybe the problem not with The Snail but with Tate Modern they have an unerring knack of killing everything they hang in that temple of doom.

  3. Patrick Jones said…

    Very interesting article about a great piece of work.For me the title referred to the movement of the eye around the surface from one colour to the next,which seemed to go clockwise.Elderfield wrote well about the acknowledged qualatative difference in the cutouts.At the back of the book was a restorers notes ,which were fascinating.For anybody who has tried collage the slightest movement during gluing can change the feeling of effortlessness,to one of lead.Lydia Ds notes on Matisse working methods were also riveting reading,as cafrefull planning and chance occurance are all built in.As good as it gets,except for Pollock

  4. Filip Gudovic said…

    Great article Robin. To some extent i do agree the more interesting spatial tensions and material depiction in Memory of Oceania compared to The Snail. Although one point i want to touch on, and i believe it is a critical feature in works like The Snail, its the design element. What makes The Snail design like apart from its decorative aspect is its centralized composition which is apparent in works of some contemporary painters like Von Heyl. Not to mention that Von Heyl’s work explores this tension between painting and design in abstraction. What I personally enjoy about the snail is that in its nature it appears simple yet if we observe the negative shapes in white in relation to the different color shades of orange purple and green it becomes a highly complex visual. It is different from Memory of Oceania because it doesn’t derive from any photographic representation or depiction.
    The idea of architecture in painting was seriously developed in Matisse work even in his figurative works (using different textiles and patterning) and more in his later series from Algiers(if im not mistaken) and cutouts.
    As painters, viewers or writers today we tend to make out and over look too much context in one single artwork, which is great because that is exactly what develops painting and abstraction, although in Matisse example he’s decorativeness has in many works suffocated the possibility of engaging with abstraction on a more critical level. Somehow hes cutouts become a bit too casual. Haha!

  5. Robert Linsley said…

    Robin, Your ruminations give me pleasure. I know you are not a fan of Frank Stella, but when you say “The Snail….takes its subject matter – if it has one – lightly, as modernism supposedly should, and appears to move into areas of spontaneous action, free and clear of ‘introspection or reflection’.” Stella comes immediately to mind, at least from Moby-Dick on. What you have to say about Memories of Oceania is inspiring, but above all I like your ability to respond to the work without having to come to a definitive conclusion. You are also right about “design” as a problem for abstraction.