Museums Conservation United Kingdom

Journey at Snail’s pace

Matisse’s huge and heavy collage, which has not moved for 50 years, may travel by sea for New York show

Hitting the trail: Matisse’s The Snail, 1953

Matisse’s The Snail, 1953, is to leave the Tate for the first time since the gallery bought it, more than 50 years ago. The collage will be a star exhibit in “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs”, which is due to open at Tate Modern next April before travelling to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in October.

The problem of how to transport the huge work, which measures nearly three square metres, has plagued conservators for years. Paris’s Grand Palais asked to borrow the work for a major retrospective on the artist in 1970, but was refused because of the risks associated with transporting it. Its original late-1960s glazing is being replaced with laminated glass, which will reduce the risk of damage during transportation. However, laminated glass is heavy: with its frame, the work will weigh around 300kg. If the collage is set at a 45° angle within a crate, it will fit more easily through doorways, but if the work is transported flat, it will need a case measuring around four square metres.

A spokeswoman for the Tate was unwilling to discuss transport arrangements. Only a few aeroplanes can carry cargo of this size, and given that South Korea’s largest shipping company, Hanjin Shipping, is one of the show’s sponsors, transport by sea may be an option.

In 1962, eight tiny samples were removed for examination and the pigments were found to be very stable. Sixteen years later, when some of the edges of the coloured shapes were lifted, there was no difference between the exposed and hidden colours.

Comparing the colours

Colour readings were taken using a chromometer in 2000, before the work moved from the Tate at Millbank into Tate Modern. These are being compared with measurements taken using a more modern spectrophotometer so that future changes can be measured.

The collage is undergoing minor conservation: it is being better secured to its linen canvas support, which is lined with three strips of brown paper.

The Snail will be shown with its sister work, Memory of Oceania, 1953, and Large Composition with Masks, 1953. The three works have not been shown together since they left Matisse’s studio in 1953. The director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota, who has organised the London show, counts The Snail among his favourite works in the gallery.

Sliding into Tate's collection

The Snail, which the Tate bought in 1962 for £23,000 from the artist’s son Jean, was rolled up to be transported from Paris and was initially hung on the wall with clips. The Tate had asked the Treasury for an acquisition grant of £10,000; this was refused, but the Tate was permitted to take the money from its acquisition budget for the next financial year. The Tate’s chairman, Colin Anderson, said: “Our successors will not forgive us if [it] goes elsewhere.”

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