Tag Archives: Abstract Art

Medieval night out

This is not a pizzeria butted against a dead-end alley. This is a portal to something wondrous. People who get in, never get out. At least, they never get out the same.


Nighttime in Verona, the city of Romanesque masterpieces, which score far behind the fake Romeo and Juliette attractions

I’ve always shrugged off critics’ view of Barnett Newman’s Midnight Blue as “a portal to the sublime”, but this Pizza Resraurant made me think there’s some truth in it.

Barnett Newman Midnight Blue

Barnett Newman Midnight Blue

The secret is to link up tangible experiences with abstract generalisations. The difference is that Barnett Newman ain’t gonna give you no pizza, and no Chianti.

Matisse’s Last Will

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

This may sound like the first page from a catalogue of wall-paper for posh homes, but it is a quote from Matisse.

Few artists can be trusted when they talk about their art. Instead of saying, “I am better at expressing myself through brush and paints than talking”, they often dismiss any question with, “I was just doodling” or “I see it that way”. Both answers are never true. If they were indeed seeing it “that way”, their attempts at walking across the road would rarely be successful. If they were just “doodling”, they wouldn’t bother to frame and exhibit the result. Fortunately, Matisse was as good with words, as with his colours.

He indeed wanted to create art that could provide a peaceful and harmonious retreat to the observer.

When ill health prevented Matisse from painting (he was around 70 at the time), he invented a new artistic medium: coloured paper. His assistants would paint sheets of paper with gouache, and he would then cut into it with tailor’s scissors, directing his staff to apply his cut-outs onto paper, canvas, or directly onto walls of his studio.

He was suffering from immobility and pain, but an observer who is not aware of the sad circumstances of his life would never suspect anything was wrong looking at his colourful artworks.

Matisse’s cut-outs, especially large ones, are examples of the worlds he created for himself, his clients, and the “mentally-working” public, in general. My sympathies go out to the working class, but Matisse realised a stonemason needed a physical couch to provide relaxation more than a mental one. He also understood that the average stonemason wouldn’t have the money to buy even an unsigned copy of his work.


These large-scale “worlds” are built almost exclusively from natural shapes and forms: algae, flowers, leaves, fish, and birds.

And then, in his final year he created two very unusual works: Memory of Oceania and The Snail.


Memory of Oceania was based on Matisse’s memories of a boat trip to Tahiti, and included both rectangular and natural forms, along with sketchy lines that are believed to reflect Matisse’s recollections of the waves in the wake of the boat.

Art historians still argue about the meaning of different shapes here.

If the clash of rectangular forms with natural shapes was unusual, The Snail was beyond anything that could be expected from Matisse.


Why would Matisse create something like The Snail out of unnatural rectangles piled up on each other within a somewhat jagged frame, with only the work’s title able to hint at a spiral?

He changed the title himself when he completed the work: from The Snail to Chromatic Composition. It shows an obvious intent to steer observers away from the more obvious associations.

Why would Matisse create a large work that would be so different to everything he was doing before?

It is known that he saw The Snail as one of his most important artworks. It is also known he spent a lot of time arranging and rearranging the pieces.


Because he didn’t have time to accomplish his mission. He couldn’t create individual “chairs” or “life boats” for everyone. He left The Snail, as a construction set for the observer to build his own perfect retreat, or for other artists to use it as a well for their own inspiration.

Matisse gives the observer the original coloured paper to play with.

The rectangular shapes (that are sometimes just torn by his hand, rough hewn) are offered for you to cut: “sculpt” whatever way you may fancy.

Matisse sets out the rules of colour harmony.

Matisse believed that colours that surrounded him during the last years of his life were the ones that provided the best harmony. The colours of the Mediterranean:


And indeed, in an average Mediterranean view, you’d get two or three pairs of complimentary colours, which our brain interprets as representative of natural harmony.



Matisse sets out the rules of compositional harmony.

Compositional harmony is about the equilibrium, the movement, and the rhythm in an artwork.

  1. The snail is a synonym of harmony because its shell is based on the Golden Ratio.
  2. The snail carries its home on itself, it is self-sufficient, and does not think twice before crawling away on an adventure. A harmonious retreat should be similarly self-sufficient.


I’ve introduced a spiral that is a common visualization for the Golden Ratio in the Snail. You can see that the rectangles fit nicely into it, with the top one just sitting comfy there, in its golden-rationed corner.

The Golden Ratio, also called the Divine Proportion, is important here not just because it helps to create a nice balance. Our Universe is constructed according to golden-ratio rules. As you, the observer, are about to begin your own creation process, Matisse provides you with the main principle by which to do it.

If we draw a vertical line in the middle, we’ll see that three rectangles are on the right, three on the left and another three sit on the vertical line, creating a perfect balance.


It is a balance like that:

When you feel like this:

Now you can realize how surprised I was to read that Tate curators saw people dancing in The Snail. The way Matisse organized the composition does not support this claim.

Why did Matisse confine his rectangles in an orange coloured frame?

A good retreat must have boundaries, which prevent good things on the inside from getting out and bad things on the outside from falling in. It must be a closed ecosystem, self-sufficient like a snail.

Why is the boundary orange in colour?

It is solid terracotta material that can hold things together without creating the impression of a prison. We wouldn’t want the wall of our retreat to be totally impregnable (like, dull brown, or sizzlingly hot red, or black iron), we want them warm and friendly to us and to our theoretically possible guests.

Matisse offers the observer to play god (not become one).

Why did Matisse include black and leave white in The Snail?

Because black is the sum of all colours and white is the absence of colour, if you think of colour as a pigment. If you think of colour as a wave-length, black and white switch places.

Matisse wants to guide the observer in his or her creative efforts, but he doesn’t want to confine them to a few predefined colours or shapes. They can extract whatever they want from black or white.

The black square is cut almost in half by the red vertical line. Its right half is slightly bigger, but that is done because there is a deep blue slab at the bottom, so the black is tipped slightly to the right to counter-weight the blue. The area of white colour is also equal on the right and on the left. That anchors the overall balance as well.

Matisse wanted retreats that you’d create to be a moral sanctuary as well.

For Matisse, who rediscovered religion by the end of his life, a harmonious retreat was impossible without it being a moral sanctuary as well.

There are 11 rectangles, each of them very individual, that are in harmony with each other surrounded by a frame that holds them all.

But it doesn’t just hold them, it directs their movement. The turning frame does not push the family of rectangles to get going, it steers them to move in the right direction. Matisse created an illusion of a white rectangle inside that is tilting to the right. It sets the other rectangles into a slow rolling motion. Perhaps, this is why it is possible to see a snail like rhythmical movement in The Snail, if you look long enough:


Or is it Christ leading his 11 good apostles? We can’t know for sure, but some see religious symbolism here.

In The Snail, Matisse handed down to the observer everything he thought he had learned about colour, composition, harmony, life, the universe and everything.

It is one of the greatest, but at the same time one of the most complicated works by Matisse. It is easy to enjoy his Icarus. It takes a lot of effort to appreciate The Snail. Yet, the rewards of understanding The Snail can be wondrous: your own world of harmony and love. You just have to build it.

PS I am aware my posts are tagged by ads at the bottom. I can’t see the actual ads, just a space informing me that they are there. I guess now is the right time for a Cote d’Azure real estate agency to have something there, and learn the benefits of being relevant. I, personally, after playing with the Snail for a few hours, can’t wait until I get to the world of these colours.

More original research on Matisse:

Matisse’s Icarus
Matisse’s Dance
Matisse’s Serenity

To sample this blog, click on About at the top. It has links to some of my best or typical posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.


‘Hello, Luke! I feel the power is strong in you, fly boy.’

Luke just landed on a cloud. He shaped a white fluffy chair out of it with a few Jedi-like gestures before replying.

‘You know, Peter,’ said St.Luke, making himself comfortable in his cloudy chaise longue, ‘this joke begins getting on my nerves. I’ve arranged for five more Star Wars movies to be filmed, but you stick to the 1977 line. That’s not fair’.

‘Life’s not fair,’ said St.Peter with a wink. ‘That’s what I keep telling people who knock on the Gate. Speaking of which, I need to ask you something, as, you know, the guardian angel of artists.’

‘It is the patron saint, Peter, not a guardian angel. Any more jokes you’d like to share now? ‘Cause I am truly busy, my drawing class begins in a minute, and I had to smuggle a truckload of Coke to bribe the demons to have Michelangelo out of Hell for 30 minutes to head it. I can’t have it wasted.’

‘Luke, do you remember why I sent Michelangelo down to Hell in the first place?’

‘He killed someone, didn’t he?’

‘Oh, no. It was Michelangelo Merisi, or Caravaggio, who did. Your Michelangelo almost killed a few sensitive ladies with his foul smell (and we made sure the demon that convinced him bathing was bad for health never left Hell or Mongolian steppes again), but we don’t send souls to Hell for trying. It was Pride. He wanted to create art that would live forever, banish death and make him equal to God. We’ve been sending ambitious people down since the Tower of Babel. Man ain’t no God, Luke. So, can you put away your painterly ambitions for a moment? It’s important.’

St.Luke watched St.Peter with the hopelessness of a shored-up whale that wanted to climb out to evolve but helpful people were pushing it back to the ocean again.

‘Peter,’ he said, ‘what art advice do you want from me then? Shoot it out.’

‘Oh, thank you, Luke. There’s that case of Malevich on my doorstep right now. He’s been in Purgatory since 1935 and now is the time…’

‘I thought Malevich was a Jew and we stopped handling Jews two thousand years ago, didn’t we?’ murmured St.Luke.

‘Who the heck is the patron saint of artists?’ Peter sounded sincerely surprised, ‘Malevich was Polish. Catholic Polish.’


‘So I need to know if Malevich qualifies as a creator of Great Art, to decide what to do with him’.

‘Yes, he does, even if it sends him to Hell. He did the Black Square, and that is a great piece of great art alone’.


‘Luke, a kid could do it. I could do it on my iPad in seconds’.

‘Peter, you couldn’t. It is not a square actually. None of the sides of the black box is parallel to the opposite side or to any of the picture sides. There’s no black paint either. It is a mixture of colours that produces something your brain interprets as black.’

‘Why is it called the Black Square then?!’

‘Because people see it as a black square even though it is neither square nor black!’, said St.Luke in desperation.

‘Yeah, I got that far, but I still miss the point of this, hmm, mystification’.

‘Malevich created a dynamic and living symbol out of something that looks as a solid, fixed, unmoving and unmovable object’.

‘Why would he do it, if all you can see is just a black square?’

‘Oh, but here is the trick. People with poor imagination see a black square, but connoisseurs thinking outside the box can see a multi-coloured cube in this painting.’

‘Luke, your connoisseurs thinking outside the box are usually the ones whose thinking inside the box is best described by a diagnosis that makes it impossible for them to get a driving license’.

‘Peter, do you remember the times when veils were all the rage among women?’

‘Sure I do – I am still getting a few fresh souls a week who keep blinking and murmuring, “oh, now I know what’s behind the veil”.

‘Well, think of this black square as a veil. People who are curious enough to see behind it, would see white behind black, life behind death, volume behind flatness. They would be the ones to whom universe secrets are revealed’

‘Luke, I tell you what. I don’t think this is great art, I think this is – as you said – a trick. As he’s not a great artist, the Tower of Babel precedent doesn’t work. Magicians are welcome here as long as they stick to tricks and stay away from real magic. So, he gets transferred to Paradise this very moment!’

‘Oh,’ said St.Luke, ‘Thank you! I think this is the right thing to do, even though I strongly disagree with you on his greatness.’

‘Luke, you can have Malevich now as your teacher, class leader, or course director. No more sinful Coke smuggling! I’ll be sending Michelangelo back then, I assume?’

There was that awkward moment of silence when the clapping of hands is expected but no one cheers up.

St.Luke was whipping up his cloud chair into a growing Rococo sofa.

St.Peter wouldn’t leave.


St.Luke, finally, looked up, “I’ll stick to Michelangelo, Peter, thank you.’

The Rococo sofa collapsed back into a chair of reasonable proportion.

‘And, Peter, next time a conceptual contemporary artist turns up, just let them in.’

‘So, no Babel Tower discussions for the next 50 years, flyboy?’, said St.Peter with mock disappointment.

‘No, and there’s a new Star Wars movie in the making. I hope you get to pick up another line!’


It’s the Weekly Writing Prompt that asked for a dialogue bringing to life the blog’s topic that made me write it. There are about 10 other points I could make to support Malevich greatness, but I decided to save them for later. Luke didn’t want to miss his lesson.

Hidden message of love

The photo on top is titled “The Hidden Message of Love”. All you have to do is to find it.

Or not.

Or it is just a snap of a pile of stones I did with my phone.

Baptizing an abstract work with a clever title has the benefit of directing attention and thought of the viewer towards those issues that are most likely to sell. 

You’d pay much less attention to the photograph, have I named it “No.46”.

An abstract artist that stays true to abstraction goes simply with “Untitled” or numbered paintings/sculptures. Like Mark Rothko. And I respect him for that.

Rothko, No.5

A commercially concerned artist goes for fancy names to sell his or her work. Like Pollock. “Full Fathom Five” or “Lavender Mist”. Like Procter and Gamble naming their toilet cleansers or air fresheners.

Pollock, Full Fathom Five

Naming an abstract work is either its automatic betrayal, or the artist’s confession that he wanted to paint “Lavender Mist” but didn’t have the skill required to do it properly.

Don’t name them, abstract thoughts. Just say them and listen to the echo. If there’s no echo, perhaps, they were not worth the paint, or the audience. You’d never know.