The Snail and Memory of Oceania Henri Matisse Cut-Outs Tate Modern 2014
The Snail and Memory of Oceania are reunited in Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

Picture it now: the year is 1953 and the place is Cimiez, a hilltop suburb of Nice in the south of France, studded with palm trees. You’re in a suite of one of the town’s grandest hotels (once reserved for royal families), which has been transformed into a huge bedroom-meets-studio and sunlight pours in through its floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the city bay. Welcome to the Hôtel Régina, the place where Henri Matisse lived and worked in his final years, and where his towering cut-out The Snail (at nearly nine metre square) was made.

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  • Lydia Delectorskaya, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953 Courtesy Henri Matisse Archives
    Lydia Delectorskaya, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953
  • Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs installation The Parakeet and the Mermaid 2014
    View of The Parakeet and the Mermaid 1952 during installation of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern
  • Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs Installation Pale Blue Window 2014  during installation at ther Tate Modern exhibition
    View of Pale Blue Window during installation of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern
  • Henri Matisse The Cut-Outs installation he Virgin and Child 2014 Tate Modern
    View of The Virgin and Child c.1950 during installation of Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern
  • Henri Matisse, 'The Snail' 1953
    Henri Matisse
    The Snail 1953
    Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas
    support: 2864 x 2870 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2002
  • Henri Matisse, Memory of Oceania 1952-3
    Henri Matisse
    Memory of Oceania 1952-3
    Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper mounted on canvas 2844 x 2864 mm
    © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014, courtesy MoMA SCALA, Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York

For the first time in over 50 years, The Snail is being reunited with its partner piece, Memories of Oceania, as photographed by Matisse’s studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya in 1953. On display at Tate Modern, the pair will also be shown with his 10-metre long Large Composition with Masks, and Lydia’s photo reveals how Matisse initially conceived these three works as one composition.

In a letter to Ronald Alley, the keeper of the Tate’s modern collection, Lydia wrote on the making of The Snail in 1976.

H. Matisse had at his disposal sheets of paper painted in gouache by assistants, in all the colours he used for the ‘papiers decoupes’. A background of white paper – of the dimensions indicated by H.M.– was put on the wall and the assistant pinned onto it the pieces of gouached paper which H.M. passed to him indicating exactly where they should be placed. When H.M. decided that his composition was finished, it was lightly stuck to the background.

We now of course see the cut-outs as finished works, but the exhibition’s Assistant Curator, Flavia Frigeri, explains that she wanted to create a sense of how Matisse moved his pieces around on the walls of his studio before fixing them. ‘Because you see them as finished works, you don’t see them in their completely movable states. There is that dimension to them and that’s the dimension Matisse experienced,’ she says.

Flavia will be sharing more stories from Matisse’s studio as captured in archive photographs here on the blog over the coming months – and with the show finally opening this week, let’s all take some time to step back into Matisse’s studio like it’s 1953.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs opens at Tate Modern on 17 April, on display until 7 September 2014


I was really disappointed by my visit to the private view today. The works are marked by the vibrant use of colour as well as shape. Given the importance of colour to these works, the low level of lighting made the exercise rather pointless as the vibrancy of colour was hidden. Had I not been a member and had had to pay for the experience, I would have been demanding my money back!

Dear Mr Shore,

I am sorry you were disappointed with the lighting of the Henri Matisse exhibition. Lighting levels in all our rooms are carefully calibrated to provide an even wash of light whilst taking into account long-term conservation requirements. On occasions curators need to mix light-sensitive works with non-sensitive ones and this leads to compromises being made on the lighting of certain displays. Almost all works in the Henri Matisse exhibition include paper cut outs. Works on paper are particularly vulnerable to exposure to light, and can deteriorate and be destroyed when exposed to strong light. I do hope you will enjoy the future shows at Tate. Kind Regards Information team

Brilliant to visit late on Fridays - started last night at 9 pm with a quick overview and planning, thanks to my Tate membership, at least another seven visits during the summer - looking forward to sharing this marvellous exhibition with my friends using my guest passes. Love the last four rooms.

Dear Ms Holtham,

You write, "Lydia’s photo reveals how Matisse initially conceived these three works as one composition". The fact that these three works stayed together for some time does not necessarily mean they were conceived as a unified composition. Is there anything else, besides the photograph, to support this claim?

Thank you!


Dear Kyrill,

Thanks very much for your comment - apologies for the delay in getting back to you! I've spoken with Flavia, the exhibition's Assistant Curator, and she asked me to pass on the following: 'The image is a proof like many other images portraying the studio at the time of Matisse's working method, which didn't focus on individual compositions but took a fluid approach. The works we now see as self-standing were treated by him as one large work in progress.'

We hope this answers your question!

Best, Susan Holtham, Assistant Digital Content Editor

Dear Susan, thank you for coming back with answers. I am very well aware of the photographs. So, if I am getting it right, it is still an assumption coming from what Flavia describes as the "fluid approach" method. Alas, I can't fully agree with this. From time to time he was building a universe around himself, so he had to take into account artworks already shown or present around him, and would experiment further, using colour and form already present (this kind of "build-up" is quite natural for most artists) but that does not mean he intended the three - very different - compositions to be a unified work of art. Thank you nonetheless, it is great to have feedback from my favourite gallery on one of my most favourite artists. Kind regards, Kyrill

MoMA have announced that they will be including in the New York showing of Matisse The Cut-Outs the large piece Swimming Pool, which has not been on public view for more than 20 years, and was too large to travel to London. This work is the key to understanding the Memory of Oceania, which I believe is an unfinished work. A comparison with Swimming Pool, enables one to read the arabesque pencil lines at left as outlines for figure(s) diving into the ocean. I would like to imagine that the artist would have placed some blue figures on top of these outlines, balanced by the fish-like form at far right. It is a pity that an illustration of The Swimming Pool is absent from the Tate catalogue.

This was my 2nd visit and it still delighted & thrilled me. An excellent exhibition and a master class in using colours. Have always admired Matisse so seeing his use of innovative techniques to achieve such scale and vibrancy is an inspiration for an artist like me. A truly valuable insight to the work of a leading colourist and I have taken away so much encouragement for own exploration of colour.