Dance II by Henri Matisse (1910)

In 1907, Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. In this shocking and aggressively sexual masterpiece, Picasso depicted what he viewed as the reality of human existence after the refined and artificial decorum of 20th century French society had been removed. Picasso channelled influences from traditional African art to evoke the primitive nature of human impulses. Unlike much of the Parisian art world, it was not Picasso’s provocative subject matter which offended Henri Matisse. Rather, it was Picasso’s overly complex style and bland colouring that Matisse found so unsatisfying. In many respects, Dance II is Matisse’s response to his contemporary, and his competition.

Thick brown lines highlight simple anatomical details such as legs, buttocks, and breasts. The simplicity with which each body is painted has immediate similarities to ancient cave paintings or carved fertility idols. With his simplistic style, Matisse successfully creates a scene of uninhibited primal joy. The five dancers bound across the canvas in apparent euphoria. For Matisse’s contemporaries, sex was disreputable and uncivilised – it was something only for whores, as Picasso highlights in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Yet here, Matisse challenges this impression, inviting his audience to appreciate that there is nothing more natural, or liberating, nor utterly exciting as nudity, sex, and desire.

While Picasso chose to have his five women stare aggressively at the viewer, each of Matisse’s five figures are entirely disinterested in their onlookers. Often when artists depict a utopian scene, they try to reduce the remoteness and fantasy of it by painting their subjects looking outwards onto the onlooker, as if to invite them into the scene. In Dance II, Matisse makes no such effort to include his audience. We are the pathetic onlookers, bound to civilised conventions, forever unable to partake in this euphoric moment. The disinterest of the figures also adds to the sense of freedom in the scene; in a manner that would have been shocking to his contemporaries, Matisse declares that his subjects are unembarrassed and unashamed.

In an image concerned with sexual liberation, it is therefore entirely fitting that Matisse was also so unrestrained in his use of colour. Known as a ‘fauve’ (or wild beast) due to his revolutionary colour choices, Matisse defied the conventions of his day. Creating great intensity, Matisse does not blend his colours to form gradients or tones, but rather uses them as absolutes. The green, blue, and terracotta red all stand starkly against each other, touching but entirely independent. In doing so, Matisse highlights the growing trend in art into the 20th century that there was no such thing as drawing ‘correctly.’ To evoke emotions is more important than to follow any prevailing traditions or rules.

Ultimately, Dance II by Henri Matisse reconnects modern eyes to the early foundations of art in the antiquity. In the process, Matisse advises modern society to release itself from the restraints of decorum and traditions that he believes imprison it. Although critics at the time found the canvas ugly and barbaric, today the work is regarded a triumph, as it should be.

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