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.
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!
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?
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.
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?