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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement