I was agog at Henri Matisse’s painting La Danse. The Museum of Modern Art has changed since then, upwards and outwards. When you go out on the sixth floor terrace you do feel lofted by glass and steel.
Everything has been re-curated, the contents of the collections shifted around so you get a new view of this Dali (The Persistence of Memory), or that Van Gogh (Starry Night). But walking amid the great painters I’m always drawn back to Matisse’s masterpiece.
The canvas was commissioned in 1909 by a Russian businessman, who wanted two decorative panels for his mansion, Dance and Music. What hangs on MOMA’s wall is actually a rough draft for the final image. While critics attacked its simplification of the human body and radical elimination of perspective as inept or willfully crude, Matisse stood up for his vision, saying that it evoked “life and rhythm.” It was this approach that earned him and other painters of the era the dismissive term “Les Fauves,” the wild beasts.
Perhaps it was this very bestial nature that drew a girl of sixteen to La Danse. Unclothed bodies in wild activity – so unlike our relatively sober jeans and t-shirt attire – were more than acceptable, they were exciting beyond words. I think for a while my attention was drawn away from words (I already considered myself a poet) to art, to creating brilliantly vivid figures on a luminous background. Bare butts, too–frisson! Totally freeing. I tacked a reproduction postcard onto my bulletin board and dreamed.
Matisse wrote in Notes of a Painter that he dreamed of “an art of balance, or purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.”
Matisse and La Danse were about joy, which we all crave, don’t we?