Tate Liverpool are currently showing Words to know by Heart: Matisse in Focus, featuring one of the most iconic works ever made by Henri Matisse – The Snail (1953).  The exhibition charts the development of Matisse’s artistic practice, including 15 works from the Tate collection.

We caught up with curator Dr Stephanie Strain who explains how, in showcasing 50 years’ in the life of an artist, they are also telling the story of art in the twentieth century.

“The concept for the exhibition started from having the opportunity to show The Snail,” explains curator Dr Stephanie Strain. At almost three metres square, made by cutting and tearing shapes from paper, The Snail dates from the year before Matisse died in his 80’s.

“It comes from this period of work of using cut-outs. Matisse was bedridden and couldn’t paint, but he could still create work while he’s recovering from illness. The Snail is one of the most important works of that period that he makes”.

Incredibly fragile, Tate Liverpool secured the artwork, seen for the very first time in Liverpool, on its journey back to London from New York. Being able to exhibit The Snail encouraged the curatorial team to review what other Matisse works they had in the Tate collection.

“Normally we’ll have a few works by each artist. What we decided to do was to collect those 15 works and make a room around The Snail calling it an “In Focus” display. It covers works that span 50 years of (Matisse’s) life, tracking the development of his career over the first part of the twentieth century”.

With the earliest work dating from 1899, the exhibition is as much a story of art in the first half of the twentieth century, as it is one of the century’s most famous artists. Compared with Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots last summer, which focused on an intense short period of the artist's career, the Matisse exhibition allows for more considered reflections.

Stephanie says; “Pollock was a short, sharp burst. What we understand here is what Matisse’s life, work and art evolved into over a period of time. What different techniques did he use? From sculpture, painting and then this great final leap into shaking off the conventions of art making, tearing paper with his hands.”

The exhibition is also interactive, educating visitors about how to make and create art. Right in front of The Snail is a making station, a trolley where people can make their own Matisse style cut-outs.

“There’s oil painting and bronzes (in this exhibition) but this final work is a much more accessible technique. We’ve paired The Snail with a film of Matisse from 1950, the only colour footage of him, as he’s cutting paper with scissors and his assistant attaching it to the wall. It’s to emphasise to people that what he reached was a process, it’s not about inaccessible forms of art. He uses strong colours and there’s a purity of colour alongside a purity of art-making that creates harmony.”

It isn’t about diminishing the work itself, the curator explains, but showing that this simple technique of cutting paper actually opened the door to endless possibilities.

“Matisse would cover the wall with cut-outs, he created this environment of paper. It’s him, as an artist, eventually giving up this notion of being tied to one surface. There are pictures of a garden of paper shapes based on nature, flowers, flora and fauna. The Snail tied into that - he’s inspired by the spiral of the snail shell.

“What you see in this collection is an abiding interest in the natural world that inspired him over 50 years.”

Tate Liverpool’s Words to know by Heart: Matisse in Focus, continues until May 2016 and entry is free.



Henri Matisse, 1869-1954
The Snail 1953
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas
2864 x 2870 mm
© Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2015


Cutting station image: © Tate Liverpool, Laura Deveney