London’s Most Famous Works of Art- The Snail

The past week has seen London heaving under the weight of tourists visiting from across the globe. 17 million people visit London every year, the majority will visit at least one gallery or museum whilst in the capital- with The British Museum and National Gallery taking the top spots. In this series I will explore the most famous works of art currently on display in London’s most popular museums and galleries. Who were the masters behind these masterpieces and why are the pieces so adored even today?

Henri Matisse is considered to be one of the modern masters of art. Working zealously until his death in 1954, Matisse drastically changed the face of modern art and his sheer passion for his work is admired the world over. Sadly, one of Matisse’s most admired creations was revealed to me in an IT lesson when I was aged 10. We were given an image of ‘The Snail’ and asked to reproduce it using every child’s favourite program, paint. My first response was how simple it was and didn’t take any skill. But it stuck with me as it was the first instance that I realised that art doesn’t have to be pictorial or technically accurate, art is purely the perseption of the artist. Yes, I did really come to this realisation aged 10.

The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954Created during Matisse’s prolific ‘second life’, ‘The Snail’ is one of the most iconic of the cut outs, with each piece being roughly cut or torn- a stark contrast to the carefully composed shapes seen during this period. Now bound to his wheelchair, Matisse coated paper with washes of Gouache before cutting the pieces in one smooth sweep. Pin pricks can be seen through-out cut outs, as individual pieces are repositioned time and time again. When observing the canvas up close, thousands of miniscule holes can be seen across the art work. Instead of the random placement of shapes with little consideration for aesthetics, one can imagine the hours and days spent meticulously composing the cut paper. This ability to observe the gradual creation, more than 60 years after its completion, is a major draw to this piece.


The dynamic colour palette and the gentle unfurling form evolving from the brutal shapes is what I believe is the key to the success of this work of art. The opaque, primary and secondary colours are synonymous with the time period, inspiring future artists such as Bridget Riley and Andy Warhol, whilst the compelling movements contra-poses the obvious 2 dimensionality. The piece shares every likeness with a common garden snail in terms of movement and shape, whilst the hues are clearly those of the landscape of southern France. I believe that the abstraction of such a primative being in a way which wonderfully convays the essence of the snail, is the primary reason why art critics and

For further information about ‘The Snail’ and Matisse’s second life, I recommend the culture show documentary, ‘Matisse: A Cut Above the Rest‘ and short book, ‘Matisse: A Second Life‘.

The Snail is held by the Tate Modern and is currently on display in ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs‘ until October 2014 when the exhibition moves to MoMA, New York. The Snail with return to the Tate Modern in February 2015.


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