Category: Art History

Henri Matisse : Dance (1)

Compare this with the previous post Damselles D’Avignon 1907

Henri Matisse Dance (I) Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909

Damselles was first published in an article about The Wild Men of Paris : Matisse, Picasso and Les Fauves.
Fauves meaning wild beast, was a handy term to differentiate use of colour, from that of the impressionists fascination with light ; the Fauves used colour in saturated blocks, rather than smaller marks, but equally representation was not literal.

Dance (1) was part of another earlier painting Le Bonheur de Vivre 1906

Henri Matisse. Le Bonheur de vivre, also called The Joy of Life, between October 1905 and March 1906. Oil on canvas

Dance (1) specifically shows the essence of the original’s overall lightness and joy.


Stand back a minute and think of how this is conveyed. Firstly, if the bodies were rendered as literal, in a painting of a dance like this; the movement would be of the mechanics of a group of people dancing – yes some maybe in the air mid movement, but the mechanics of the positions in relation to each other’s time-held movement would be the only way to mimic the real-life scenario.

As with Picasso and Damselles. Matisse takes the mechanics of reality out if this. He directly uses colour and the flatness of the canvas, away from a true sense of perspective.
The impressionists had also been doing this, depicting how they saw light rather than solidity of object. Now Matisse saw form through colour arrangement, as a way of expressing an emotion or feel of something.


The colours used are simple and easy to relate to. We could assume the background is green for grass or blue for sky or water. Either way there is no way of knowing for sure as there are insufficient details.
Only the dancers have the necessary detail to invoke a feeling. And that feeling is subjective to the viewer. But the simplicity and essence of movement and freeness in their abandon, with nude bodies, relaxed lines and lack of tension is shown in their lightness of touch with the perceived ground and the space they occupy on the canvas and as a group.

There is a break in the chain, this could be a point of tension, but the colour of a knee fills that, possibly. The break could mean all sorts, an offer for the viewer to join ( it is closest to the viewer’s stand point).
Or a gentle slip; in that a break doesn’t matter in the great scheme of the dance itself.  But it doesn’t detract from the overall unity of the group and feeling of a perfect moment.


All conveyed through a different way of using colour, form and arrangement to express an idea of reality.



Dance (1)

MoMA Dance (1)


Barnes Foundation Le Bonheur de Vivre


Attribution for images :
Dance (1)  :
Bonheur de Vivre :

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon


Damoiselles d’Avignon

What do you see.
Sharpe angular outlines of women? flat tones, little depth for expression of shape within the ‘unfeminine’ outlines?

Not a mirror image of real life for sure. Especially when portraits and figurative images had, from the beginning of 1300’s renaissance Europe, been striving for that similarity in likeness. Nature rendered as itself. The flatness of either godly or human form was given depth ; the new science of perspective having effect in architecture and painting.

Why now in 1907 did Picasso decide to ‘retrograde’ back to rendering an image flat? When artists worked in tempera up to the early renaissance, they didn’t have the luxury of time to mix and blend colours into formations of depth illusion and shape.
Picasso worked in the relatively new medium of oil and did, yet he had no desire to paint ‘photographic’ or even remotely similar mimics. He instead chose to invoke his questioning imagination. He was, as were many at that time interested in what had become in the west a developing craze – a fascination with all things exotic, born on the exploration and colonisation of continents since the 1700’s.
And, for artists like Picasso and Gauguin and Matisse… the fascination with African imagery, history and the far east, became a fascination with their own way of seeing and how they rendered images.

And the timing of 1907; specifically, this was a time of change, old certainties and the bedrock of faith, science and philosophy had been questioned for some time. But the first decade in the new millennium was a time when these changes gained traction. Some groups of artists created their own social norms in manifestos. This would be tempered or change again after the carnage of the first world war, but the years prior to 1913 were riding on new ideas, and importantly not resting on statues of older, time-embedded ones.

Picasso’s life may have shown evidence of his attitude toward women, but his paintings are, as far as paintings go, only able to depict the image represented. Any thoughts or feelings invoked are all subjective, along with any information about the artist the viewer has, and what the artist intended.

So from the point of the angular lines, the unfeminine lines, the aggressive lines maybe, what is their point? Or maybe they are ‘just’ shapes. The dark lines are not shadows as we would see them, but could be, holding the two central figures shape’s softer tones of pink, lifting them away from the lighter blue and white ‘background’. And African mask-like lines on the faces of two of the others. Dark tones on the face of the figure on the left. And green stripes and blue edging to the nose of the two mask like faces on the right. The fruit is recognisable, but not balanced on any surface. It could be sliding off the canvas.

The red ‘curtain’ or is it a block of colour, although a hand appears to be holding it. This could make for a dramatic or theatrical side drape to the canvas. There is no background as such, just more shapes highlighting the figures, as if backlit perhaps. The colour of the figures are pushed forward to the viewer, maybe that is where any proactive stance could be felt. As opposed to the passivity of so many previous reclining nudes throughout history.
And looking at it as a mirror of where the viewer is stood, changing that to looking downward.  You could see the surround to the figures as sharp angular shapes of fabric, a bed maybe.

The images in front of you are of female forms, for sure, but rendered in a completely different way from that of the norm. A shock inducing move for the times? Or at least a contentious one?
Except they are naked, nothing new there. They are erotic, the one on the left for example, holds her arm up, bearing all, as would many typical reclining nudes. Except she has a non-passive stance, her eyes and expression unflinchingly direct.
The nude and ‘vulnerable’ bodies eschew an angular fortitude, a strength. They certainly are foremost in the viewers eye when looking at the canvas, not shying away. Their eyes, almond shaped like that of Byzantine or Egyptian art. Three of the stares fixed on the viewer.

The white drapes an almost unnecessary prop. A coy reminder of female portraits of the past.
There are no references to pubic hair or erogenous zones, just shapes.
Not necessarily vulnerable as a group here. As was the single model of many portraits of nude women.

To me the group show a strength, with their in-your-face stance, nakedness, eyes fixed on the viewer and their bodies broken down into cones and triangles, shapes rather than voluminous curves.

Away from any ambiguities, we do know that they are five women from a brothel in Barcelona. The original figure on the left, initially intended to be male.

This painting would be put into categories; the flatness of Primitivism and the way Cubism would breakdown seeing; from what was considered ‘reality’ into paintings that would show in terms of flatness, shape of colour and movement.


Art Made Clear is a soon to be available series of videos intended to remove the mystery from art history.
Please take a look at some excerpts 


Further links

No Smoke Without Fire

 Doing It Again Differently

I am a great believer in the idea that truly original works of art do occasionally happen but for the most part it is someone unwittingly doing something slightly different from another work that has already been done – a bit like music, the notes are there but eventually something will sound a little like another piece.


And on the same note (pardon the pun) considering the scope of the notes and the scope of creativity in general it is any wonder repetition doesn’t happen more often.


So I was not surprised when I heard that two British artists Patrick Waterhouse and Walter Hutton were embarking on a re-imaging of Dante’s Inferno (part of the allegorical trilogy The Divine Comedy).



Take time to watch this though – ‘cos they are doing something pretty daunting and the ideas they are expressing here are captivating in a mini sound-bite-tv-ad kind of way.


But….and it is a big But……..


Artists contriving to do what many would regard as blatant plagiarism? – well there’s nothing new there and nothing like a bit of preservation-angry detractors to up your ante.

Or Artists just showing themselves to be expressing a new and innovative way of *art as reinvented new*. Certainly commendable and no doubt the results will be interesting.

But then the idea seemed to go a wee bit off the beaten track when I also heard this was not their own venture but a kind-of-commissioned piece by those masters of advertising (who leave the Saatchi’s in the cold) Benetton.


Benetton Prague
Benetton Prague

The Benetton of babies in cocktail glasses and men dying from aids billboard fame. The Clothes Manufacturer and although the adverts at the time hit the shock horror we-need-to-talk-about-issues zeitgeist and very commendable for that – it always struck me as a tiddy bit tacky to use images in this way to essentially promote your sales – of clothes – not an aids related drugs campaign in Africa, say, but clothes being bought by mainly middle class Europeans with an aren’t we being edgy feel-good factor to it.

And it is true when hired photographer Toscani pushed his imagery to the max and upset a fair few people with a death row billboard the company did start to reflect on actual hands on rhetoric.


So, along side the ad-campaigns they joined up with The World Food Program and Micro Credit, all organisations with good intentions at heart. This though was still advertising and Ok, at least it was *raising awareness* and I’m not sure if any profits were re-directed but hey! they are not the only company on that tack and lets face it some are no where near making the kind of effort as shown on their recent campaigns; Benetton may have a track record for shocking adverts but it is still a long way off from many clothing manufacturers ducking and diving over human rights and ethical issues.

So what was it this time?. Benetton has been pretty consistent since the mid 60’s – fledgling company it is not. And you still have the green United Colours logo reverberating around the high streets. Along with the green logo Benetton Formula 1 zooming round the tracks.


Benetton F1 1983
Benetton Formula 1 circa 1983


Dante was pretty unique with this epic poetic piece of work and the name probably rings a bell somewhere in everyone’s collective psyche. A bit like St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – no one really knows what was in it exactly, but we all know he wrote something.


So what is the point with this work of art/book advert in the making? Someone somewhere obviously thinks it is a good idea – advertising is not a whimsical thing in any company – the button counters are first in line to stop any unnecessary money and risk in promotion. And this *project* has money backing its production.

But there is no risk? certainly not like during the affluent 90’s-2000’s trail blazers of Toscani ‘s before it.

The ingredients are on the face of it, two relatively unknown UK artists re-working Dante, an (Italian) national icon, who most people possibly don’t know enough about to actually get affronted by the potential sacrilege, never mind understanding the re-worked concept. And a post-economic meltdown clothes company giving a pre-advert sound bite.


One thing seems fairly certain this is a commission and how much say-so the artists actually have in their brief may be debatable.

No matter how interesting and possibly even good the finished work may be, even by literally doing-it-again-differently.

No matter how much the voice of reason (Benetton) suggests (I suspect) that its intention is to *re-awaken an interest in Dante’s work* (which is very applaudable) or even an interest in the artists? Especially if we can easily see the original work as well to get the intended meaning.


Gustave Dore's engraving in Canto 1 of The Inferno

Gustave Dore’s Engravings in The Divine Comedy : Dante lost in Canto 1 of The Inferno


This was a huge work of words and engravings and has been depicted in many dissected parts, in paint and drawing, by many artists. How this will work in 2010 – it does sound a fascinating endeavour. It is just the format of procedure that seems a wee bit off.

Delacriox The Barque of Dante

Delacroix : The Barque of Dante


I’m thinking about all the detractors of William Orbit’s Adagio for Strings here. Which as a piece of done-again-differently music worked really well, I thought. Especially as the original was so well known, a sound track to almost everything. And although purists rallied to the cry of sacrilege! he I am guessing, had a bit more freedom to create the piece artistically even within the framework of commercial music, as it was produced in the main as music for music’s sake.

This though seems not to be a wholly creative re-work of the poem’s imagery, possibly a measured attempt at re-inventing it: Artists who are already involved with Benetton’s Fabrica Centre then *decide* to do the piece and Fabrica fund it.


And so….


If not engineered, it seems a contrived work? to maximise profits by the clothing company’s specially formulated publicity arm or Communications Research Centre, Fabrica, who are primarily? interested in selling as many clothes off the back of the interest in the ad campaign as possible in order to satisfy share holders.


If so, this is art being used for clothes–horse sake. No matter how minimal the Benetton/Fabrica logo appears in a corner somewhere.


Or maybe I am wrong – she says hopefully:


A manufacturer who (like many are today) desperate to increase sales, decides sod it! dammed if we do dammed if we don’t so, we are interested in expanding artistic and social perspectives.

Somehow though, this time round the idea of it all just doesn’t seem risky or edgy enough.


back with Sundays………

The Edge of Expression


For something so seemingly gentle an occupation art really does get up some peoples noses. Take the artist Owen Maseko in Zimbabwe for example, being arrested and having an exhibition closed. By all accounts the imagery was not a walk in the park, but then neither was Zimbabwe’s recent history. An artist’s reflection of that you might say.

In a different and a wider sense I agree that some art can be inflammatory because of the subject matter and the close proximity to defenders for or against its denial or existence. But really, is that attitude no different than with some people getting outraged at NWA rapping about stuff in the 80’s and 90’s? what were they going to rap about ? a walk in the park perhaps?.



Now Zimbabwe, and this artist’s (and other Zimbabwean artists) are obviously coming up against a regime which would prefer them to just shut up entirely, never mind to stop painting pictures of their histories grim reality. An acceptance of which on a daily basis I imagine every citizen faces in every aspect of their lives there.

But what is it about imagery that holds such strong sway when it comes to censorship and acceptance. We know this is nothing new; for centuries established and not so established kings and queens, religious hierarchy’s and the wealthy have bought the favours of artists to portray a kind of propaganda.

Religious paintings

Part Triptych of Le Cellier Jean Bellegambe

On the lines of non art/information delivery;

TV news is apparently having a renewed popularity rush with the imagery of video reporting – alongside its move to the internet and moving-image-reportage (delivered to your flat screen or where ever) the written media is feeling a squeeze in the presence of this visually captivating information over the finely crafted word. We like to see and hear stuff delivered by a human form – I guess it keeps our senses fully occupied. And perhaps it is also way of delivering a padded out slightly more entertaining version of what would be very tightly scripted or written news in a more traditional talking head style.

I get that video holds strong, and, still talking about dry stuff here, but I’m the first person to watch the vid rather than read the manual (personally I need glasses to read in any depth especially on the screen) but is it also easier all round?. Maybe though there is a little bit more to it than this, a combination of a sort of time poor attention deficit and being told information? bite size stuff.

Art and the delivery of artistic expression;

Art has been, up until recently, usually defined by a static image or sculpture; something to contemplate. Is that where its unease creeps in with acceptability?. Art portrayed like this can, or encourages people to ponder, to look, to touch, to think and therefore not be told, but to hopefully engage and take stock. Therein I think lies its perceived power on one level alone – that of contemplation.

TV news, political spin, whatever visual and verbal imagery that fills and occupies our screens, 3g spaces and airwaves, does just that, fills up our senses on a roll if you like, with just enough time to take it in and hopefully form an opinion about it. But the written word and art, moving image or not, is there to take as long as you can, or would like, to contemplate its nuances and then to re-contemplate.

The internet has a lot of visual, verbal and written content that whether art or not, is there and can  be consumed and contemplated over and over again if wished. This is now being shifted into brackets and categories by business, policies and legislation.

I will be very interested to see in the near future, why some forms of expression are deemed not as acceptable as others. The reason why.


I think the written word, however it is produced will always have the same contemplative ability by the very fact it is static; so prompting the reader to absorb and imagine at their own pace and re read.

Books, publications and art have always been bones of contention, especially in the light of big social change.

I am sort of surprised the kinds of free expression seen on the internet have had comparative freedom of space for so long.

How we read the world around us has an impact on our perceptions and how we then act within it.

So art, being part of a freedom of expression, sort of comes with the remit to endeavour to reflect that. But all art, whether theatre and film along with the written word and the still image, be it painted, photograph or whatever, will always be a valuable part of our collective contemplative conscience.

As long as that expression is not stitched, tailored to suit or tidied up into acceptable baskets of truth or authenticity, because of political zeitgeist, fear of offending, of rocking a boat, or indeed in spite of that.

A friend once said she believed art was not about beauty per se, more about finding beauty within the sometimes unacceptable and unpalatable – so all the information we personally process everyday local or globally, can reach for some sort of contemplative acceptability of that.