Saturday, October 1, 2011

A review of Matisse’s ‘The Dance’ vis-a-vis Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’

Matisse has traversed the extremes of primal depths to posh sophistication of civilization with his supernatural mastery over colours. While he excelled in uber urban ‘window’ paintings or in the crimson modernism of the ‘Red Studio’, he touched the very dawn of civilization in its entire primitive glory in, arguably, the greatest Matisse ‘The Dance’. In both the cases his sophistication as well barbarianism has one source –colour. With him, colours are the raw material of feelings, a base material to be splashed to create a wide ranging continuum of moods and sensibilities. Whether it is assault of red or ethereal hues of ‘The Dance,’ he is playing with chromatic nuances to convey his mood and underlying sensitivities that make him such a huge master. I will stick to ‘The Dance’ here as this painting has it place right in the crucible of modern art revolution that started with the jolt of ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ of Picasso in 1906-07. Art was never the same for anyone, but for Matisse, ‘the Fauve-wild beast’ the shock was more stinging and he was looking for a suitable riposte to reach his natural perch i.e. at the very frontier of the art revolution.
Ace critic Robert Hughes has termed The Dance as “one of the few wholly convincing images of physical ecstasy made in the twentieth century.” This is undoubtedly true for almost any other epoch of art. Hermitage Museum explains on its website that the painting acquired its ‘famous passion and expressive resonance’ in its final version, a reference to subdued MoMA version i.e. Dance-I where pink bodies do not unleash ‘volcano of energy’. ‘The frenzy of the pagan bacchanalia is embodied in the powerful, stunning accord of red, blue and green, uniting Man, Heaven and Earth’ continues Hermitage website.
With its cave-painting purity The Dance scores over the African origins of ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’. Break from tradition that was a whiplash in the Picasso masterpiece became a deep-rooted, ever present reality with the self contained burst of energy with Matisse painting. In one of the most exciting decade of modern art, rules were being rewritten. Fauves under Matisse had already moved away from the outside reality. They were painting what was seen by them or how it was imprinted in their fertile imaginations. Their skin tones could be of any hue, their beaches could be yellow or anything could be anything that is why they were the ‘wild beasts’. Picasso brought a new reality, a reality that was a radical reconstruction of the form. He really took the game to a different level and opened a completely new vista for experimenters. Here ferocity and distortion were the key novelties that were challenging the time honoured traditions of painting. A newly globalised world had opened African aesthetics to Europe. Picasso, the creative predator, made the most radical use of it. Shock of ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ took some time to register. Even Picasso did not display the painting for some time. Matisse along with his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin was among the viewers who understood the game-changing value of the masterpiece. Matisse clearly saw a rival and Picasso was to enter in the same mood three year later when Matisse came back with far more radical but understated mutation of the aesthetic tradition.
“Both paintings present the same number of nudes, but where Picasso painted five women who challenge you the viewer, Matisse answers him with a picture whose five naked inhabitants don't care if you are there or not” says Jonathan Jones of the Guardian. Picasso is aggressive, Matisse self-contained. Picasso is brazenly engaging you with a defiant stare. He is abrasive and violence is directed not only on the nude female bodies but on the viewer too in the equal amount. Here he is firmly ensconced in the tradition of European art, a tradition of painting pulling in the viewer with direct stare. Here the full impact of art is dependent on the reaction of the viewer. Mona Lisa does it. Even where the stare is not directed on the viewer, a clear cut stage like feeling is there, demanding reverence, lust, disgust or submission for completing the aesthetic experience. Picasso breaks many canons of the artistic tradition with his ferocity and distortion but he is dependent on viewer. He is trying to establish a dialogue with her, though from an offensive, brazen and violent perch. The Dance, on the other hand, is self contained. It is a scene that stands on its own, its own energy, its own joy, its own ecstasy. This is a private revelry whose link with the viewer is tenuous. The experience of watching this masterpiece is at once submerging and distant. It washes over you with perfect harmony of colours and it distances itself with its indifference. Its remoteness is its reaffirmation of its revolutionary provenances. Jonathan Jones puts it very aptly “Dance is modernist in a way that has not faded. When you look at it, you are unsettled as well as uplifted. It seems on the edge of emptiness.”
This ‘edge of emptiness’ is full of pure colours to use Jones again “there's nothing in any other painting quite like the chromatic miracle of Dance. Terracotta flesh combines mysteriously in your mind with those saturated blues and greens, in a poem of absolutes. Absolute red, absolute blue, absolute green - a hymn of intensity.” Matisse knew that his riposte to ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ have to be through colours as savage formal revolution of the Picasso masterpiece was beyond any riposte. It was a new realm of form distorted through the eye of the Spanish genius. It stood on its own and any competition to it would have been a meek duplication or insipid follow up. Matisse drew a different line. It was pure energy unleashed by purity of tones. Very limited but intense tones. The Master himself is known to say “"the surface was coloured to saturation, to the point where blue, the idea of absolute blue, was conclusively present. A bright green for the earth and a vibrant vermilion for the bodies. With these three colours I had my harmony of light and also purity of tone." The alchemy was complete.
La Danse or The Dance was commissioned by Sergei Shchukin for grand staircase of his palatial residence in Moscow. It was a two painting commission i.e. for La Danse (Dance) and La Musique (Music) in 1909. The Russian was hesitant about the nude dancers but after seeing the water sketch he came round. On completion, these paintings were savaged by the critics and people even doubted Matisse’s sanity. A shaken Shchukin visited Paris and surrendered to the vociferous criticism and cancelled the commission. On his two days journey back to Moscow, he reconsidered his position. The enlightened tycoon wrote to Matisse “"I've thought things over and I'm ashamed of my weakness and lack of courage. ..... I have decided to hang your panels. People may shout and laugh, but since I'm convinced that your path is the right one, perhaps time will be my ally and I shall claim victory in the end". He was the proud owner of the two masterpieces till the revolution in 1917. Westerners could see the paintings only in 1969. Shchukin had the last laugh.

Dhiraj Singh


  1. What great use of words to describe each of the paintings! Matisse does seem very self-contained in comparison to Picasso's more violent and confrontational style. You really know how to choose the right words to bring out the feeling and innate meaning of each of the paintings. I wish my vocabulary and writing style was as captivating as yours! I think Matisse and Picasso did so much to bring out the best in each other. I could not imagine how famous either would be if the other did not exist!

  2. Fascinating. Thank you Dhiraj for leading me to this.