The Weasel: Matisse in Piccadilly

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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.

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