Matisse’s Dance (Danse)

Henri Matisse, Dance (Danse), 1910

Henri Matisse, Dance (Danse), 1910 © Succession Henri Matisse c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

The inclusion of Dance by Henri Matisse in this exhibition has been made possible by:
Dance has been brought to the Netherlands by:

When it was first shown a hundred years ago, at the Autumn Salon of 1910, Matisse’s large panel, Dance, was greeted with laughter. But it was later to be recognised as a milestone in cultural history, to be understood not only as one of Matisse’s most important works, but as one of the key works in the history of twentieth-century European painting. Having found a permanent home in the Hermitage, the painting has become a symbol of the famous museum, with the result that it very rarely leaves its walls. On this occasion, however, the Hermitage in St Petersburg has been most generous in response to the request for the loan of the painting from its affiliated institution, the Hermitage in Amsterdam. Dance will thus be on show in Amsterdam for a period of six weeks (1 April – 9 May 2010) during the exhibition Matisse to Malevich.

Matisse was drawn to the theme of the dance throughout his life. His concept of a composition concentrated on the round dance crystallised over the course of several years, from the time of his most important early Fauve work, Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-6; Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA), in which the round dance occupies the background. Usually associated with symbols of a Golden Age, the round dance motif had been taken up long before Matisse by Old Masters such as Lucas Cranach the Elder. The motif became popular once more at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and Matisse was of course aware of Art Nouveau’s different ‘dances’.

Studying under Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts, he must have discussed with fellow students such works as Signac’s large In the Time of Harmony: The Gold-en Age is not in the Past, It Is in the Future (1893-5; Mairie, Montreuil). He was also familiar with the Symbolist model for Le Bonheur de vivre, Henri Martin’s vast Serenity (1899; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), which passed to the Musée du Luxembourg and was shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. In the distance in Serenity is a circle of dancing – dressed – women. Sergey Shchukin, who commissioned Dance from Matisse, had such dressed women in mind for his painting, aware of the demands of Moscow society morality at the start of the twentieth society; he even wrote to Matisse on the subject, but, respectful of the artist’s creative freedom, did not insist on having his own way.

In 1907 the artist carved a wooden relief with nymphs engaged in an ecstatic dance (Musée Matisse, Nice). The motif then appeared in his vase-paintings. Shchukin must have seen the first version of the painted Dance (Museum of Modern Art, New York), on which Matisse was working in early 1909, and he commissioned a panel of the same size, but far more dynamic, for the staircase of his Moscow mansion. Matisse despatched the sketch for Dance to Shchukin; there are also two drawings linked with the composition, in pencil (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and charcoal (Musée de Grenoble).

In the Middle of March, Shchukin wrote to Matisse that he had received his letters ‘with the sketches for the large paintings’. Matisse himself had had the idea for a decorative ensemble for the staircase of a three-storey house in which the first panel to greet those entering the front door would immediately draw them upwards. Dance was intended to play this role. The next scenes, on succeeding floors, would have represented music and rest. Shchukin’s mansion had only two storeys and a third panel was thus not required. Faced with the need to reduce the original concept, Matisse sent him two watercolour sketches, Composition I and Composition II (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). Composition II would have shown a scene of rest as a pendant to the Dance; this was later to be developed in Bathers by the River (c. 1916-17; Art Institute of Chicago). It is clear that when Dance was commissioned in 1909 Matisse and Shchukin were discussing all three subjects, but that the client insisted on having just two.

On 31 March 1909, Sergey Shchukin wrote to Matisse: ‘I find your panel The Dance of such nobility that I am resolved to brave our bourgeois opinion and hang on my staircase a subject with nudes. At the same time it will be necessary to have a second panel of which the subject might very well be music. In my house we have a great deal of music. Each winter there are some ten classical concerts (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart). The panel Music ought to indicate to some extent the character of the house.’ Music was thus to complement Dance and yet to stand in contrast. Hence its static quality, which stands out so strongly against the dynamism of the first panel. It embodies maleness, while Dance represents the triumph of the feminine. One might describe the subject of the ensemble as man’s relationship with life through art. Naturally, Matisse’s work on it did not simply lie in resolving purely decorative tasks.

Henri Matisse, Music, 1910 © Succession H. Matisse c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2010

According to Hans Purmann, who witnessed the creation of the New York Dance, that work was painted with incredible speed, in just one or two days. Unlike Music, on which Matisse worked for about a year, Dance was also executed very quickly.

Dance was the most powerful and finished manifestation of the Fauvist trend in French art. It was created out of an established tradition that put forth new shoots in the work of the Symbolists. In their art, the round dance became a hackneyed subject, its plastic potential much affected by fin-de-siècle concerns. The motif found natural expression in the enclosed form so beloved of the exponents of Art Nouveau: it was easy to draw from it those flowing, winding lines without which Art Nouveau cannot be imagined. It was quite deliberate that the artist preferred female forms to male forms in his Works on the subject of dance.

In the works of the Old Masters, and of Salon painters and those around them at the turn of the century, the musicplaying and dancing figures can usually be identified as idealised versions of their contemporaries. But one would be hard put to see Matisse’s contemporaries in Dance or Music, or to say that he captured in them his view of people of his era. They are free not only of clothing, but of any temporal associations, with the exception perhaps of the Antique flute and the much later violin. They are unaware of their nakedness; they conduct themselves as heroes not within some historical context but within the sphere of mythological concepts.

Primordial dances were the manifestation of magic, an ancient act of creativity, an embodiment of the victory of life over death. Scholars of the symbols of ancient cultures have noted that dances which involved the linking of hands represented the union of earth and sky. Through art (be it dance or music) man becomes part of that union. In Matisse’s work the earth and the sky are not simply a background but key protagonists in the action. That is why he needed to intensify and simply their colouring. The united colour scheme spreads across the whole ensemble not simply from a desire for decorative unity. The cosmogonic aspect resounds in the colour connections between the two canvases. In both, the action takes place on a hill, a hill or mountain being another traditional symbol of the union of earth and sky, linked with ascension into the spirit kingdom. The tonality of Shchukin’s panel is thus in keeping with the profound symbolic content.

Yet the cosmic theme is expressed through that of mankind. Taken separately, neither Dance nor Music fully expresses the artist’s concept. Together – in grandiose dialectic opposition – they speak worlds. In keeping with certain philosophical concepts current at the turn of the century, within the ensemble woman represents the principle of unity, while man represents the principle of division and individuality. Two opposing poles, seeking to come together. In the end Music is as static as Dance is dynamic.

The inclusion of Dance by Henri Matisse in this exhibition has been made possible by: Turing Foundation
Dance has been brought to the Netherlands by: Royal Dutch Airlines

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Photo Janiek Dam

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