the timelessness of basquiat and matisse

I have chosen to write about two works of art that mean something to me: a piece from the most recent exhibition I’ve been to, and the first piece of art I really remember engaging with. While the artworks up for discussion were made nearly three decades apart, I believe that Matisse’s The Snail and Basquiat’s Matisse, Matisse, Matisse actually have a surprising amount in common, and this goes to show how accessible and influential art can be.

I experienced Basquiat’s work in depth for the first time very recently at the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibition currently showing at the Barbican in London. I’m ashamed to say I definitely didn’t know as much about Jean-Michel Basquiat as I should have, given that he was an immensely iconic artist who disrupted the 1980s-art world and is famed for critiquing the social structures he experienced as a young black New Yorker. I left the exhibition feeling really moved by his work, especially his combination of poems, postcards and paintings that were all equally inspiring and endlessly interesting with their cryptic layers of paint and meaning.

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Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912. (This is in MoMA’s collection, and is likely to have been on display during Basquiat’s  visits). © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One piece that I was particularly fond of in the Boom for Real exhibition was Basquiat’s Matisse, Matisse, Matisse. With a plain background, it depicts the Notre Dame, an African sculpture, and two goldfish bowls. Interestingly, all of these featured in three different works by Matisse that were on show in New York museums and galleries (Basquiat’s mum took him to the Met and Museum of Modern Art, among others, from a young age). Though these works are neither as big or bold as much of Basquiat’s other work, I was immediately drawn to it. How could I not be, given that it’s a homage to and an interpretation of Matisse, one of my favourite artists?

I have admired Matisse’s work since a young age, and The Snail is the first work of art that I can really remember seeing and experiencing. I was four when the Tate Modern opened, and it became a ritual of my parents and siblings to each pick a postcard of a work of art and then go and search for it in the gallery. I picked The Snail, small enough to hold. Standing in front of it as a child, it towered above and around me. At nearly three metres both tall and wide, it’s a truly monumental piece. It’s no wonder I remember it so clearly; it’s a vivid work of art, not just in scale but in colour too.  Bright orange both enhances and frames the blues and greens, which in turn bounce off the yellows, reds and pinks. Matisse even gave The Snail an alternative title of La Composition Chromatique (Chromatic Composition), which goes to show how essential colour is to the piece. It is much more considered than you might originally expect.

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Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953. © Sucession Henri Matisse/ DACS 201

Another reason why I loved it as a child, and still love it now, is its apparent simplicity. Although it is made out of collaged painted sheets of paper – a fairly abstract depiction – it is still quite clearly a snail. All the same, Matisse’s simplicity can be misread, and I think this is one of those works of art that some people snub: “oh my 6-year-old could have done that”. What people might not realise is how much serious planning Matisse put into this piece. As previously mentioned, it was a first and foremost an experiment in colour and form, and Matisse went to great lengths to achieve the finished result. He made an extremely precise tracing of it before it was sent to be pasted down in Paris to ensure that the shapes would not move, even by a millimetre.

By the same token, the “child-like” apparent simplicity of the piece is integral to its effect too. The use of collaged shapes (none of which are clean, geometric forms) gives the illusion of haphazardness, and is a technique children often use. I think this is something to be celebrated, not scorned. This is a modern masterpiece that appeals to many people; a joyous experiment of colour and technique, and a celebratory representation of the ordinary snail.

The raising up of the everyday into the higher realm of gallery-exhibited art is something that both Matisse and Basquiat have in common; Matisse with his snail and Basquiat with his goldfish. The former is well known for his egalitarian approach to appreciation, and he valued his African statues as much as his Persian rugs and his Monet paintings. Basquiat, on the other hand, was completely self-taught with an immense knowledge that covered an astounding variety of mediums from jazz to anatomy textbooks to hip-hop. I believe that these varied birthplaces of inspiration are crucial to making art more egalitarian and accessible. After all, if creators draw influence from places that really mean something to them, places that might be outside of the traditional realms of so-called “high art”, then it is much more likely that their work will speak to people who have written off art as something that isn’t meant for them. These pioneers of art created work that speaks to a little girl who simply loves the colour and scale of an artwork like The Snail, as much as to a critic or art historian, and surely this is the best thing that can achieve.


Words by Seonagh Murray


Cover image: Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912. (This is in MoMA’s collection, and is likely to have been on display during Basquiat’s  visits). © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953. © Sucession Henri Matisse/ DACS 201


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