25 Feb 2015

The Province of Joy - Lenten reflections 2015 - "The Snail" by Matisse

"The Snail" - Matisse - 1953 - Tate Gallery London UK
Contributor: Bishop Brendan Leahy

A painting entitled “The Snail” by the French artist, Henri Matisse, hangs in the Tate Modern Art museum in London. Its large size of three metres square and its dramatic colours really struck me when I first saw it hanging there during a visit some years ago.

In a sense, the painting is simple. Using the seven primary colours Matisse has arranged the painting around geometric blocks on a white background. These blocks form a loose spiral suggesting the shape of a snail’s shell.

The painting is famous for many reasons. It has been described as a kind of drawing with scissors. It seems that when he painted this painting, Matisse was unwell and possibly dying. Though confined to bed he provided instructions to his assistants. He got them to cut or tear shapes from paper that had been painted with one of the primary colours. Then, under his precise instructions, these pieces of paper were placed on the white background and pasted down by an assistant. The overall effect was that the blocks of colour appear to float, as though always in motion. It was a painting that suggested a movement, an unfolding.

The artistic guide who was leading the group I was part of on a tour of the gallery pointed out to us that Matisse had also instructed that a piece of black be placed within the arrangement. By the canons of art, this shouldn’t work (black shouldn’t be included in the middle of primary colours) and yet, somehow, it seems to work in this case. Perhaps, suggested the guide, the sick and dying Matisse wanted to convey something about mortality, time passing and the “black” (of illness and of death) fitting in?

Lent is a time when we concentrate on our spiritual journey. We need this time every year to reflect on our lives because the life of each of us is passing. Evening comes quickly. I think Matisse’s painting expresses the fact that so many aspects of life are constantly in movement – family and friends, goals and deadlines, dreams and hopes.

Yes, there are many dimensions to our life, but perhaps what the painting also wants to say to us is that as time passes, let’s face up to the “negative” that we often feel tempted to deny or simply lament – our limits and failures, our sins and suffering. As we look at the black in Matisse’s painting and see that it somehow “fits in”, perhaps we can hear again the invitation to “take up our Cross”.

The Cross is unique for each of us. Suffering grazes everyone in life in a different way. For those with Christian faith, what matters is that we name the suffering and recognise that we can transform it by uniting our suffering to that of Jesus Christ in his dying and resurrection. As St. Paul so often repeated, our suffering, if lived in Christ, can be a source of life for others. Lent can be a time for discovering more profoundly, how the “black” can fit in. “It is when I am weak I am strong”.

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