Audio transcript

Geometry of Nature: Henri Matisse 'The Snail'

Narrator: This room is called the 'Geometry of Nature' and perhaps the best known work in it is the spiral arrangement of colour and form called 'The Snail' by Henri Matisse. Hilary Spurling, author of 'The Unknown Matisse', provides the background to this work.

For getting on for 20 years he'd been more or less bedridden. He'd had an appalling operation from which he wasn't expected to recover at the beginning of the war and he'd had to spend a great deal of everyday in bed, so he could no longer stand at his easel for hours everyday, as he had done all his life. And he invented a completely new medium. It was completely new in those days. We call it 'cut paper'. It was a kind of drawing with scissors, that's how he described it. He had assistants, house painters, who would paint sheets of paper in the colours that he chose his greens, his blues, his oranges, his reds and he then, instead of drawing with a pencil, would cut out his designs and assistants would pin them on panels or walls. He described this particular panel, which is a late one, 'The Snail', as an abstract panel with a root of reality, but actually three years earlier it had been a garden snail. He took it between his thumb and finger, held it in one hand, his left hand, and drew it many times with his right hand. And what he said he was trying to do was fix that image of the snail, the snail shell, in his mind arrive at the essence, the kind of sign of a snail shell which he did. I mean, he simplifies it and reduces it to the movement, the circular movement of a snail shell. The image he used was music, it's like a musical movement, or a dance movement, a gesture. If you think of each of the stages of this revolving circle of the snail shell as the gesture of a dancer, perhaps one comes nearer to understanding what it was that Matisse was trying to do, but also the response he wanted was the kind of response you would have to a dancer: immediate, instantaneous, not a sort of mental or rational response, but a direct response to a movement. And that is what we see, in front of us, frozen, as it were, a movement.