Friday, 11 December 2015
Talking of Dance...
This would have been the painting usually known as Dance (1910), which came to the Royal Academy on loan from the Hermitage in 2008. Diana Athill's rapture is not misplaced; this huge painting is one of the most dramatic and visually powerful modernist works, as well as one of the simplest. It is widely seen as Matisse's response to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, another big, bold 'statement' painting, and one that seemed to change - and challenge - everything. However, Matisse's Dance could hardly be more different: whereas Les Demoiselles is all jagged confrontation, Dance is all self-absorbed ecstasy - all dance indeed.
The dancers are barely individualised, faceless (all but one) and minimally notated, and the Arcadian setting in which they dance is reduced to pure colour: blue sky, green earth. The dancers too are pure colour - a fiercely vital red. It is the interplay of those red bodies that gives the painting its kinetic life; these are bodies in motion, caught in the frenzy of the dance. The figure on the left is key to the composition - the perfect turning curve of his body at once anchors and drives the movements of the other dancers, whose wild poses are more pagan than classical.
The roots of Matisse's Dance can be traced in classical art, in Botticelli and Poussin, Turner, even Blake - but it is defiantly modern, defiantly itself. It still retains its power - and its mystery. Like all pictures of dance, it's an attempt to paint the unpaintable, but this painting that doesn't engage with, doesn't seem to need, the viewer is uniquely elusive. It is a picture in which you can only immerse yourself receptively, listening to its silent music - as Diana Athill, in her wheelchair, did with such relish.