Illustrated companion

Matisse's collage works of this kind are usually referred to as 'gouaches d?coup?es', 'cut-out gouaches', and they were made by preparing large sheets of paper with gouache - opaque water colour - which Matisse would cut, or sometimes, as can be seen here, tear, into shape. Matisse began to make regular use of this technique from 1948 when ill-health prevented him from working at his easel. He was able, however, to manipulate paper and scissors and to direct assistants in the placing of the coloured pieces on the background sheet. In the last years of his life Matisse produced a group of collage works, some of them, like 'The Snail', very large, which are regarded as the final great flowering of his art.

'The Snail' appears very abstract but like all Matisse's work it is rooted in his responses to the world about him. It is characteristic of Matisse that for 'The Snail' he should take his point of departure from an everyday creature associated with relaxed calm, and possessing in its shell a naturally occurring geometric form of considerable beauty. In 1952 Matisse made a much smaller gouache d?coup?e of a snail, in which the spiral of the shell is unrolled into an open curved form. He told the critic Andr? Verdet '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'. In 'The Snail' this process of purification has resulted in an open structure of coloured fragments arranged in such a way as to suggest that they are floating in space in slowly spiralling movement within the enclosing frame of orange. It is clear that the coloured shapes themselves must be simply vehicles for the colour, which Matisse has selected and organised in such a way as to create a decorative effect of great intensity. The scheme consists of the three primaries, red, yellow and blue, and their three secondaries green, mauve and orange, with some variations of green and mauve. The non-colours black and white provide, respectively, contrast - a place for the eye to rest - and the dimension of space. Matisse deliberately places together complementary colours, red and green, blue and orange, yellow and mauve; complementary colours 'complete' each other and so look stronger and more vibrant when placed together. The colour scheme of 'The Snail' makes an interesting comparison with that of Matisse's 'Andr? Derain', painted almost half a century earlier, also in the Tate Gallery collection [N06241] and it may be suggested that, like the earlier work, 'The Snail' is an expression of Matisse's response to the colour and light of the Mediterranean scene - its sun, sky, sea and vegetation. What might be a cut-out silhouette of a snail with its horns out appears in the top left corner.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.206