Monday, November 1, 2010

Ecstatic Freedom

There are some artworks I can't get enough of.  I don't tire of them -  I'm revived or provoked by them, again and again.

In music, the violin concertos of Saint-Saëns, Bruch and Beethoven.  Mozart's piano concertos.  At the NGV, I'm often roped in by Jean Arp's 'Crown of Buds', and most of Henry Moore's friendly lumps.

I could go on, but there's one artwork I keep returning to, year after year: Matisse's 'The Dance'.

A revolution at the time, 'The Dance' was painted a century ago, this year.  In Distraction, I tried to reveal what makes it so powerful:
Painted to decorate the house of the Russian industrialist and collector Sergei Shchukin, 'The Dance' has what Matisse called a “Dionysian” mood: its wild, frenzied maenads are a world away from the tame bacchants of popular nineteenth-century art. 
A powerful rejection of the tricks and tropes of academic painting, Robert Hughes spoke of it as “one of the few wholly convincing images of physical ecstasy made in the twentieth century”. In a climate of conservatism, this was a jolt of joy, abandon and carnality. 
But it was achieved with painterly restraint. The work expresses a wild pagan celebration with the elegance, harmony and beauty of classical art. The bodies of the dancers glow, their skin hot and red against the cool blue of the sky. Their faces are contorted, heads and bodies twisted, almost to the point of ugliness – but the flowing rhythm of their joined arms and curved figures, and the sharp delineation of colour and line, give the work an intense beauty. Instead of repressing passion and instinct, it harmonizes them with clarity, order and reason. 
In this way, Matisse gave Shchukin a picture of ecstatic freedom.
I've not picked apart my particular love of it. Perhaps it's many things: my ideal of freedom, given lyrical form; the combination of force and control, abandon and mindfulness - something I've tried to cultivate in life; and I'm just a bowerbird, sucked in by the blue.

But I'm damned grateful.  Happy centenary, maenads.

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