Tag Archives: Art criticism

Sean Scully, Extraterrestrial

This summer, in the Regent’s park in London, the annual Frieze sculpture show has a piece by Sean Scully. It is titled “Shadow Stack, 2018” and made of Corten steel.

Shadow Stack

Shadow Stack, 2018 by Sean Scully

The short curatorial note describes it as follows: “Shadow Stack continues Scully’s preoccupation with the horizon. A three-dimensional extension of his Landline paintings, the oxidation of the steel echoes their stripe motif, giving the surfaces a textual painterly quality”.

I believe it was written by someone from Blain|Southern gallery that represents Scully.

I don’t think I could never be employed by a respected gallery of the Blain|Southern caliber. First, I tend to say “rust resembling paint” when I see rust resembling paint. Second, I don’t believe that a “preoccupation” with something by any one person is of interest to anybody.

The end result of any artist’s phobias, preoccupations, and insecurities can be interesting if it goes beyond addressing people with the same “diagnoses”. Otherwise, it is simply a clinical illustration of a patient’s “condition”.

Take Yayoi Kusama who fears penises and vents out this fear in her art. Her fear of male genitalia is her idiosyncratic psychological problem that is of interest to her therapist, but her chair made of the objects of her terror has a much broader appeal, because it reminds people of rape, abuse and sexual violence – all the more relevant today in the context of the #MeToo movement.


When creative motivation is reduced by a critic to “preoccupation” I get an acute pang of “myötähäpeä” (personal embarrassment one feels on account of and for another who is making a fool of him or herself). I don’t think Scully is preoccupied solely with the horizon. His thinking is broader.

There is one point though on which I agree with the critic from Blain|Southern. I agree that Scully’s sculpture is a three-dimensional extension. The question is, an extension of what?

If you read my previous text about Scully’s paintings, you will see the point I make is that Scully is painting a world of a different set of dimensions. His paintings are flat projections of a different, multi-dimensional universe onto ours.

His sculpture does the same, except that this time it is a 3D protrusion of Scully’s multi-dimensional universe into our world.

Here is my logic.

This piece is not made organically in this world, that is, not created by nature. It can be seen as either an edifice that was man-made and placed on the grass above ground OR it can be perceived as something that came up from below hence originating in a different, supernatural, world.

While the first notion is, in fact, the ‘reality’, it doesn’t offer any significant meaning to the viewer, while the second supposition transforms the viewer into an observer of something phenomenal and unique: a universe where natural shapes and forms are very foreign to our daily references yet remain aesthetically pleasant at the same time.

The absence of a pedestal, with the bottom slab half-submerged/half-emerged from the ground (depending on how you wish to read it) offers another argument in favour of theory #2.


The slabs tick away a vertical rhythm that makes the mind believe there is an upward push. There is also a sense of ‘unevenness’, of ‘disorder’ that enhances the artist’s search for rhythm. As the slabs shift against each other, they manifest the internal energy and a bit of chaos inside the structure. We welcome chaos because without it there is no life, and we celebrate order because it is essential to life preservation. This sculpture has them both.

I can’t think of a better place for this sculpture than a park. This otherworldly projection is foreign but somehow quite fitting to the earthly landscape.


The magic Scully creates is in the absence of weight. When we look at a tree, we don’t think of the pressure that the trunk is experiencing at its lower part. No compassion outpours towards the wood cells at eye level that are locked up in the heavy trunk. Yet, we feel the weight and pressure in, say, a building such as the one in the following image:


If we reflect on it, we can imagine the subliminal effect this has on the ground floor employees working there and we can even feel sorry for them.

We feel the changing weight in the sculpture of Chung Hung in the photograph below:  it is much heavier at the bottom than at the top:


Chung Hung metal sculpture made with Corten, at Vanier Park. Source

Even a simple concrete tower radiates weight that lands on earth from above:

But weight is not the first association that comes to mind when we look at Scully’s tower:

As the mind tucks away the weight aspect, we pay more attention to the play of shadows, the shifts of slabs, the growth of this otherworldly edifice and, ironically, we feel a sense of lightness – a contradiction I believe the artist wanted us to experience .

In essence, Scully opens up a hole in the fabric of our reality, and something interesting comes out, which he leaves up to each viewer to imagine, for his or her self.

What do you experience when you look it it?

Does sex sell?

When it comes to the beauty of a female body, many painters say the key to success in winning the battle against photography is nakedness, eroticism, and sex seasoned with glamour. Art galleries are jam-packed with paintings and collages celebrating fast cars, full lips, cup D size breasts. This desperate idea (that pornography can beat photography) is substantiated by the claim that while a photographed nude can sell only if it was signed by Helmut Newton, a painted nude is Art regardless of who painted it, so it can be sold to anyone not allergic to paint chemicals.

I could agree with this opinion, with a one-word reservation. It is the key to success for bad artists.

A good artist does not have to paint a naked body to send his male audience into blissful contemplation culminating in cash transactions. On the contrary, men have been intimidated into believing their interest in nakedness is immoral, and even a greatly executed nude (unless it was signed by Lucien Freud) is likely to be collecting dust in the gallery’s storeroom.

I don’t blame feminism for this depreciation of the Reclining Nude (even when she’s not actually reclining). Art critics have done more harm to the genre than all the feminists combined.

John Berger, one of the most influential art critics and thinkers (most BBC presenters tend to become icons at some point) should be the prime suspect in the dock for discrediting the beauty of a naked woman. He never hesitated to cut and then interpret artworks to fit his marxist theories.

In his book Ways of Seeing, he used the head of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque as a proof that the glamorous pin-up culture of the 1970s (very modern at the time) was keeping up with the quincentenary tradition of showcasing nudes for the carnal pleasures of male observers: he wrote that both pics were showing women posing “with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her—although she doesn’t know him”.


Illustration from Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Poor Ingres must have turned in his grave the moment the book was published.

The Odalisque, in its full form, is detached from the viewer by smoking whatever substance she was enjoying before Louvre visitors started taking pics in front of her.

Source. I am happy for the girl in the photo, for if she likes this painting, she'd never become a hardline feminist.

I am happy for the beautiful girl in the photo, for if she likes this painting, she’d never become a hardline feminist who contemplates art history through the black lens of “unjust male dominance”.

Her half-turned head shows a moment’s distraction, not full attention. I mean the Odalisque’s head.

You, the observer, might have stirred her curiosity. Not because you’re a man she doesn’t know and wants to charm. There’s only one man who can take her, and it is her sultan. Are you the sultan? Are you a sultan? No? Well then you must be one of the eunuchs, because if you are not, you are very likely to become one sooner than you can prove yourself to be a true gentleman by saying, “Oh, excuse me, sir, I must have dropped my spectacles somewhere around here”.

A French mind of the 19th century saw an Odalisque as a beauty one can only enjoy at a distance, but can never enjoy physically. Of course artists were exploiting this theme to create titillating erotic images that would sell like fresh baguettes at the time, but Ingres was not one of them. He wouldn’t distort the woman’s body as much as he did (adding three vertebrae at the bottom), were he intent on creating cheap thrills for his viewers.

But even if we assume that she was painted as a courtesan in odalisque disguise, we can’t say she’s looking back with calculated charm. She is so damn used to men looking at her body that she doesn’t care about “looks” anymore. Show me the money first. We’d talk seductive looks later.

I can offer Mr Berger a much better head and body. The Russian Alternative, if you want, even though art historians may argue that Leon Bakst spent more of his “productive” time in France than in Russia and is, therefore, a French artist. The lady, to whom you are about to be introduced, is also a perfect example of the Dressed Nude: a sexually arousing image without a single naked body.

This is the head of the woman from Leon Bakst’s painting, “The Dinner” of 1902.


Bakst’s lady, just like the girl in the photograph, challenges the viewer with direct and intense eye-to-eye contact.

Bakst’s lady has more clothes on. And yet, she’s much more seductive, especially if we look at the full picture. A good artist doesn’t just give you a sexy body to gawk at: he offers you the beginning of a story for which you can create your own climax.

IMG_0393 - копия - копия

Some observers fail to immediately notice a vacant chair at the bottom; along with the fact that the table is set for one more person. The inattentive blame the busy top half of the painting. It is not so much busy as distracting. It is about blunt flirtation with the eyes and the smile, and undisguised seduction with a push-up bra, which makes her breasts rhyme with the voluminous oranges. Those oranges beg to be taken. The breast-orange pun is obviously intended: her outstretched arms become a visual aid for those, whose observation power is paralysed by the low neck of her dress.


The folded fan in her hand is something that could make Freud’s bogey go boogie with excitement (it’s Zigmund this time).

I first wondered why Bakst chose oranges over apples that are instantly associated with sin, sexuality, and temptation.

No. That would be trite.

Comparison of apples to breasts was so common in art history, it became a bad-taste cliché when Cranach the Elder passed the torch to Cranach the Younger. Bakst must have opted for oranges, because he wanted to exclude the Adam-Eve associations (the flower of the lady’s innocence had been bruised long before she was seen dining, and the observer doesn’t look like an embarrassed Adam either), and because apples are consumed as is, while an orange has to be peeled first. I don’t have to add, “just like the lady in question”, but here you are, I said it.

And yet, were the idea here limited to a direct juxtaposition of oranges and breasts, the painting would slide down to a banal poem of two lines rhyming “bosom” and “awesome”.

Bakst’s Dinner (1908) goes beyond the trite two-liner, quadrupling it into a full-blown promise of sex.

Quadrants4Note how the lower parts of her figure are partially obstructed by layers of table cloth that is painted just like the skin of an orange. The artist indeed mixes orange with ochre to paint the stripe separating the vacant seat and the woman.

To cut the long story short:


The famous marketing model (today seen as outdated) that describes the workings of advertising as AIDA (awareness, interest, desire, action) was introduced by a US guy a few years before this painting was completed, and I seriously doubt the painter was aware of it. Yet, he came up with basically the same model.

This painting is a great example of creating an involving sex-story without showing any nudes. Bakst could go with a high-neck gown without rendering the picture less sensuous.

PS The small detail I also like about this painting is that the face is done in somewhat “mute” manner. It is not detailed, or specific, or exact and leaves space for imagination: the observer himself can “paint” the blueprint of the face the artist gives us in a variety of ways. 

PPS Having visited an amazing exhibition of Renoir in Martigni today, I feel it’s time to talk more about nude paintings, tracing the genre’s history from Giorgione to Ingres, Renoir, Degas and beyond. It is time to win back the Nude genre.


Experiencing the beach: dialogue with artist

Friends ask me sometimes, “If you understand art so well, why don’t you begin painting yourself?” That’s because I would make a bad artist. My brain is wired differently. Shakespeare could produce three metaphors in a single line, and I need half an hour to think up one. And chances are it won’t be nearly as good. A talented painter can produce a dozen visual metaphors in a sketch, while I would be half-way through the preliminary measurement of my future painting to locate the golden ratio line. A good painter will find and draw it with the speed of a trained cop drawing his service gun: his hand knows where it is.

Good artists are spontaneously good. It is what sets them apart from art critics who are spontaneously critics. Even though I don’t style myself as an art critic, but as an art appreciation coach, there you are, anyway.

To give you a bad metaphor: good artists come up with orgasmic paintings each time they have sex with their paints, and I would be a nightmare painter struggling with ejaculation problems. It is like a writer’s block experienced by someone who is not a writer. We don’t want it, do we? Of course not.

This morning, I pulled my couch outside to an empty beach in the Bahamas to do some coaching, and – what a surprise – I met an artist who had just finished her sketch. That’s her photograph on top.

So we sat together, and chatted about her artwork.

This is a seemingly simple and very spontaneous painting of a beach hut that Boryana Korcheva put out to dry moments ago.


There’s nothing unusual about the yellow sand, the blue skies and the ultramarine ocean, which seems a bit wavy, with some whitecaps at a distance. No wonder then that there are no people on the beach, except the two of us.

Artmoscow: Boryana, you are a resident here. Tell me, is it going to be a windy day? No swimmers or sun-bathers to disturb the view?

Boryana: No, since the island is surrounded by a reef, the sea tends to be calmer on this side of the reef and almost always choppy beyond it, so yes, most of the time there are white caps in the horizon.

Artmoscow: Oh, all right then, so we don’t have much time before people swarm the landscape. Do you come here often, at this early hour? What do you like about being here?

Boryana: I am fortunate to start every day with a walk on the beach – this is my very own hour of quiet dialogue with the ocean and the elements. Before heading home, I love to stand for a few minutes with my eyes closed and listen to the sound of the waves – the ones that crash at my feet and the ones further and further until I lose them. I imagine that the waves go through me – it feels fantastic.

Artmoscow: I am lucky to meet you here just before you were going to leave, I guess. As I look at the hut, I can’t fail to notice it is painted differently from the sea and the sand. The latter look like a serene stage set for the rather chaotic shed.

Why is it chaotic? What did you think about when you were painting it?

Boryana: A lonely beach hut against the vastness of the ocean – an unsteady shelter, forbidden lovers’ hideaway, a place of shadowy exchanges?

Artmoscow: I see it may mean a lot to you. To me, it doesn’t seem to be a firm structure bolted to the ground. It is crawling forward, as if the wind from the ocean shoves it to move on.

There’s movement in the painting, as if some energy is passed over from the ocean to the hut. Something is handed over, like the baton in a relay race.

The heaving ocean is breathing at the hut’s back as a live beast, which is, quite fortunately, separated by the wide stripe of sand from the observer (which, in its turn makes me, the observer, feel safe).

This dynamism is provided by a perfectly proportioned positioning of the hut just at the border of the centre of the painting, to which the eye wants to draw the house, and the slanted lines of the roof indicate this direction: they prompt the eye to drag the shed up and to the right .


It is also possible to see this house as a live animal, resisting the wind, with its head stubbornly lowered and its tail stuck out in the effort to remain rooted to the spot.


Boryana: oh, no, I don’t think I wanted it to be an animal… Though you never know what chaos can unleash…

Artmoscow: OK, but this hut, moving to the right, does seem to be alive with specks of bright colours like a twinkle in the eye and the orange flag on top blown about by the wind…

Boryana: Yes, those flickers of  light, cries of seagulls, clatter of loose planks against the rustle of the waves, it is all there. And then – the eternal peace of the horizon.

Artmoscow: If I talk like a complete bore, you seem to be reciting some nice poetry, as a true artist probably should. Yes, I can see the wind gushing through this semi-transparent hut, and I guess, I can hear the planks clatter… So, there’s not just movement in this sketch, there’s also plenty of sounds.

Boryana: Yes, the audio world is just as exciting as the visual one, but we tend to neglect it. Try to stand still, close your eyes and tune to the noises around you – the immediate and then the distant ones. Another one is to pay attention deliberately to what you perceive through your skin.

Artmoscow: That sounds like a psychotherapy exercise that better be undertaken in solitude. While you are here, I would like to understand a bit more about the chaos of the hut.

Boryana: Subconsciously I must have been painting my mind, with its ragged, uneven thoughts wheezing through it like the wind through the cracks.

Artmoscow: OK, let’s talk about your “ragged and uneven thoughts”, for they just might be the key both to the chaos and movement in this work.

I remember you mentioned a “lovers’ hideout”. We all have our own associations with this, but what’s yours?

Boryana: This is difficult to pinpoint. The easiest thing is to say a “flight of imagination”, but every such flight is rooted in an actual experience. It may go back to my teens, when we used to go camping on the Black Sea coast and when, if two of you wanted to sneak away from the crowd for some privacy, you would head to the beach hoping to find shelter in a shack or something like that. Teen beach sex, when you can’t afford a hotel room – to put it straight.

Artmoscow: People say there’s more disappointment than pleasure in sex on the beach. Sand gets where is shouldn’t. Yet, I can imagine the shed being quite chaotically shaken by these teenage lovers. I won’t ask you about the “place of shadowy exchanges”: let’s let the readers build their own crime and passion stories around that.

Anyway, I see a lot of life in your vision, and life means movement and dynamism. Yet, there are no people and – save for the shed – the lines are simple flats.

Boryana: You know, my overall feeling of the sea and the beach is of something dynamic, always in motion, even when it appears perfectly still.

Artmoscow: So this is where the movement is coming from, finally. For the record, this is what I think is great about your sketch:

This alive, semi-transparent house with winds blowing through it, is moving across the frame, which makes it a small wonder to watch: there’s a conflict being played out before the eyes of the observer. The beach spreads beyond the frame, unlimited and endless, and so the drama is not going to end anytime soon. There’s plenty of time to watch it, thinking of time, other lives, the elements that will outlive us all, the joys that await us in future, and the destiny of the hut, which crawls along the beach at a snail’s pace.

When I applied the “golden ratio snail” to the painting,  the hut fit perfectly inside it: it’s seemingly chaotic lines rhyme with the shape of the snail, its chaotic details turn out to be proportioned accordingly. Moreover, the snail of the hut fits into a bigger snail that seems to bring together the skies, the ocean, the sand, and the house into some single entity, creating a union of the elements: air, water, and sand.

This painting is a very interesting representation of not sitting on a beach, but EXPERIENCING THE BEACH.


You didn’t plan to build this movement around golden ratio rules and geometrical representations, at least consciously, I believe. I know artists who just feel golden ratio because their eye and hand are trained in this, and I guess you’re one of them.

Honestly, did you think of the golden ratio proportions when you worked on this painting, or you just “felt” and painted the harmony, because your eye and hand are trained in this?

Boryana: Placing the hut off-centre was one of the two conscious thoughts I had about the composition of the painting. The other was about the horizontal lines – the line of the horizon and the line between the sand and sea. But I didn’t think of proportions, rather of ‘what would look right’.  The process of painting the hut itself was more gestural than deliberate. I must have thought of it as something that is temporary, impermanent, fleeting.”

Artmoscow: I tried to play with some of the proportions in this painting by cutting off a bit of sand and some of the skies, but the harmony gets lost.

Speaking of “experiencing the beach”, what is in it, for you, personally?

Boryana: Since it is not a specific hut on a specific day, they are all the thoughts that go through my head when I walk on the beach in the morning. I think about people, about things I’ve read, about art, about past experiences, make plans – big and small ones – ‘the windmills of our minds’ kind of thing. Sometimes I get specific ideas about paintings, sometimes the whole mental stew takes shape in a spontaneous piece like the Beach Hut.

Artmoscow: I am sure the reader has his or her very personal associations with a sandy beach, and your sketch is a great way to wake up those associations. You painting is not about a beach hut, but about the Total Beach Experience. I don’t think photography can ever do it. 

You told me it is be shown at a NY gallery soon. I think it will sell fast. Were I the gallery owner, I would show more work from this “experiential” series. It would be good for the visitors, emotionally, and just right for me, financially. Good luck with the show!

This is, of course, a semi-imaginary dialogue, based on a brief Q&A session over e-mail. I did not have to edit Boryana’s answers, but I had to do cosmetic work on the questions. We are 5700 miles away from each other, but art is known to cross borders and cover great distances in the blink of an eye.

For my readers who have not been before to Boryana’s website: go there. Check out her other, very different, types of artworks or paintings. Pay attention to the self-portrait in a bottle. Don’t tell me you’ve never felt like this.

My perverted love of art critics

WIthout art critics we would be lost: we wouldn’t know what to think and feel. We would grossly misinterpret life, the universe, and everything. We would descend into a nightmare of conflict, debate, and beating each other on the heads with precious works of art.

If you’ve spent some time reading this blog, you might be under the impression that I don’t like the Modern Art Critic. No. I adore their word-juggling tribe, for how would I know the truth without them?

They make my life so much easier. I take their view, and then negate it to arrive to the truth. It is much like drawing through the use of negative space. In terms of showing whiteness, it is better to draw a grey background without the white cup (right side) than a realistic white cup (left side) that looks dull grey.


Look at this nude by Picasso. He is 87, his model, and wife is 42.

Nude Woman with Necklace 1968

Nude Woman with Necklace 1968 by Pablo Picasso

This is what a Tate art critic sees in this work:

“Picasso made this painting in a single day, just before his eighty-seventh birthday, when he was beating off old age with urgent, angry brushstrokes. The energy pours out of this massive female figure. She’s a living landscape, a life force, a human mountain range, with a river gushing from between her legs, a gust of wind erupting from her backside, and an explosion of white spray rising up behind her to join the clouds. Yet she’s many other things as well. She’s an ancient green goddess, whose mask face looks both at and beyond us; she’s an exotic bejewelled concubine, baring all and toying with her breast as she lounges flatulently on cushions of red and gold; and she’s also Picasso’s wife Jacqueline, whom he both worshipped and resented for her youth and beauty. I can never decide whether her expression is ferociously defiant or heart-wrenchingly vulnerable.”

And this is what really happened:

Pablo was furious that morning. Last night, he failed. He loved, he adored that woman. Her skin, her toes, her knees, her smell, her eyes, and yet he failed to satisfy her. He could read it in her eyes: a bit of contempt, a bit of pity.

In fact, she adored him, she used to say openly he was a God. There was no pity or contempt, just love and compassion, but Pablo couldn’t see it, for his mind was clouded by guilt that he transformed into rage.

So, he decided to rape her, screw her really hard, no-holes-barred, by painting her.

It had to be done in one day, for it was more an act of rape than a work of art.

“I can’t do you”, thought Pablo, “because you are ugly, not because you’re forbidding. I’ll expose your impregnability through comparing you to a spiky mountain ridge (Pablo compared the shapes of women to slowly rolling hills many times before), but I’ll open up all your caves and I’ll make you cum and fart, and all the more so against the soft red velvet”.

I wonder if Picasso would be climbing mountains were he not able to paint…

Picasso loved to create conflict through pairing red and blue when painting women. He assumed (rightly so) that it brings out the concept of passion in a rather obvious way, ever since the Renaissance days, when Mary was usually dressed in blue and red robes (even though those were not meant to communicate any sexual passion, of course).

He thought his wife’s body ugliness could justify his failure. He even cut down a few fingers and toes off her hands and feet (and normally he was very particular about toes).

“Do you like it now?” thought Pablo as he painted erect nipples. “Your face may be impassioned, but your vagina says it all! Stop pretending you don’t care or don’t like it! I can see it in the way your eye-lashes quiver (and he added the eye-lashes). I can see it in the sweat running down your cheek!”

Yet, Pablo’s love kicked in. His energetic brushstrokes with which he was painting the body transformed into tender pastel-like shades and lines as he was modelling the face. The lines with which the face is done are smooth, tender, and very differently to everything else.

The face was probably the last patch Picasso did. Most of his fury went up in the steam of painting the body.

He forgave himself when he painted the face: it is the face of a woman wronged, but loved. albeit cruelly.

It is not his wife’s real face: in a way, it is Picasso’s face as if reflected off his wife.

This is why its expression simply can’t be “ferociously defiant or heart-wrenchingly vulnerable”. The lines wouldn’t be so smooth.

P.S, My story is a bit of a far-sighted joke, but that doesn’t atone for the Tate critic’s shortsightedness.

Fifth hint

I offered four hints that could help to understand the meaning of Matisse’s Snail from Tate Modern in my last post.

Now, the fifth hint.

Count the coloured blocks.

Yes, there are 11 coloured blocks and one holdall frame in The Snail.

And yes, Matisse embraced religion towards the end of his life.

But I am sure you’ve made the connection already.

At a snail’s gallop

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.

Veronese: Allegory of Love series, 1575 and Marisse: Sorrow of the kings, 1952

Veronese: Allegory of Love series, 1575 and Matisse: Sorrow of the kings, 1952

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! 

jty142-5-3It is a large composition, as can be seen from this photograph, in which a couple of art lovers pore over a wall plaque with the title, thinking, “What the heck is the meaning of this exhibit?”

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?

The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954

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.

Hint B:


Hint C:



Hint D:

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?

Never Again, Because it’s Never a Gain

It is always a loss of friendships, relationships, karmic capital, time, effort, and, occasionally, teeth.

I mean, being honest when it comes to art is like walking in the rain and smiling at lightning when you have a full set of metal brackets.

Criticizing artists (or just telling them what you really think) while looking directly into their eyes is especially dangerous. Like, saying, “You know, John, this is a secondhand idea and you really should not have used that much of this red” when John asks you what you think about his latest masterpiece.

An artist can crush a Champaign bottle on your head, and then walk free from the court, because any jury would decide it was your fault.

The judge then is likely to rule your head still needs to be examined, after your cracked skull would have healed. If you are dumb enough to be honest with an artist, you should be locked away from the society of normal people.

Recently, I think I’ve lost friendship with a great couple of art lovers because I entertained the idea of an honest answer about the artist they introduced me to, when they asked if I wanted to buy anything from the guy.

I could say I didn’t have the budget.

I am not saying artists should not be criticized. Oh, well, they should, but only if you checked the front door is locked and windows are barred, and you’ve established no one among your relatives or friends (you want to stay friends with) is in love with the artist’s artwork.

Many great minds tried to convince artists it was OK for an artwork to be criticized. “Impressionism” and “Fauvism” were born out of critical ridicule. Nothing helped to convince artists that criticism should be welcomed into their life, unlike praise that is more appropriate posthumously.

Artistic profession is unlike any other. If you invite, say, a plumber, and his work is worthy of criticism, it is you who gets offended, not the plumber. The plumber can’t tell you that you are an unappreciative asshole, and expect to keep working in the neighbourhood. Artists are different. The artist architect who worked on my house was deeply, mortally offended at me noticing the mirror he ordered was 15 cm (half a foot) shorter than the recess he planned for it, and that it was not aesthetically gratifying to have a smaller mirror filling a bigger recess. He broke the relationship.


Thank you, the Daily Prompt, for inspiration!