The Weasel: Matisse in Piccadilly

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Thousands of Russian troops marched on Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade in a proud display of the nation's military might amid escalating tensions over Ukraine  

Once again, the West fails to understand Russia

Mary Dejevsky
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before