The Weasel: Matisse in Piccadilly

Share
Related Topics

It may seem that the Weasel is laying himself open to charges of being a lie-a-bed and Johnny-come-lately in only now offering an appreciation of Matisse's exultant masterpiece La Danse, the centrepiece of the Royal Academy's From Russia exhibition, sometime after the rest of the press pack has come, prognosticated and moved on to pastures new. But it ain't so.

Far from being inappropriately dilatory about this astonishing whirligig of energy, colour and passion, I was one of the first to describe the work when it emerged from long isolation in St Petersburg.

Back in 2000, Mrs W and I were fortunate enough to see La Danse when it appeared in Rome as part of an exhibition entitled 100 Masterpieces from the Hermitage. For perhaps five minutes, I was the sole proprietor of Matisse's exuberant quintet. It was a damn close run thing that we caught it. A week later, André-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, grandson of the Russian art collector Sergei Shcukin who commissioned the work in 1909, applied to Rome magistrates for the work to be impounded. In the wink of an eye, the Hermitage whirled La Danse back to St Petersburg. That's why the UK law was changed to ensure that similar legal shenanigans did not occur when, after prolonged negotiations, the painting made a second appearance in the West.

Matisse spent most of the summer of 1910 in an intense struggle to get his vision down in oils. Though he had previously completed the full-scale sketch that can now be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the artist "painted intuitively, without thought or premeditation, like a dancer or an athlete", according to his acclaimed biographer Hilary Spurling. To sustain the rhythm of the design, he hummed dance-hall tunes. Spurling reports the observation of his studio assistant Hans Purrmann that the alteration of one line could upset the balance of the whole composition: "He kept rearranging the limbs of the four figures... and manipulated the entire group as if it were one single figure with eight arms and eight legs." Perhaps Purrmann was swept up in Matisse's creative delirium since there are five figures in La Danse with a total limb count of 20.

Mind you, I had to check and make sure. It is the most kinetic of all canvases, not only in its tendency to disappear at the whiff of a writ. More than any other work I've ever known, La Danse seems to move before your eyes. The curvetting circle of dancers appears to be constantly in rotation. Oddly, this illusion put me in mind of the supernatural print described in MR James's short story of 1904, The Mezzotint: "It was indubitable – rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o'clock that afternoon."

It may seem a fanciful response, but the overwrought Matisse experienced the same eerie perception in his studio. It happened when he heard that Shcukin had cold feet about purchasing La Danse and its companion piece Music. With a scarcely conceivable generosity, Matisse allowed his studio to be used to display a work by the now largely forgotten Puvis de Chavannes, who was also much admired by Shcukin. According to Spurling, the artist had a bizarre reaction while removing his own artworks: "Matisse sprang back in panic when the figures on the two huge canvases laid out on the studio floor suddenly seemed to heave and stir beneath the baleful gaze of Puvis's muses." When Shcukin declared his preference for the Puvis, La Danse very nearly didn't go to Russia. It was only two days later that Shcukin, while on the train to Moscow, retrenched to his original choice. Matisse departed for Spain, where, according to Spurling, he suffered "almost complete physical and emotional breakdown".

But what dance is being performed in La Danse? The vigorous knees-ups observed by Matisse in Montmartre dance halls were one source of inspiration, but the whirling circle came from Collioure, the Mediterranean fishing village where the painter spent time before beginning the painting. A few years ago, while trudging its back streets, we came across locals engaged in the fluid, rather sedate Catalan ronde known as the sardane. Though similar, this did not correspond to the rotating surge, described by one contemporary as "pagan and Dionysian", on Matisse's vast canvas. Reminiscing about painting La Danse, Matisse said that "he found himself crouching, ready to leap as he had done ... one night on the beach at Collioure, in a round of Catalan fishermen far more violent in movement and appearance than the sardane." Catalan fishermen are far too cool to dance together these days. The only fish-related violence we saw in Collioure involved the filleting of anchovies. Sadly, this topic did not inspire the town's best-known visitor.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities