I’ve been doing an online course about art and gender by the University of Melbourne on Coursera, called Sexing the Canvas, and I’ve been fascinated by an actually pretty famous painting, exhibited at the MoMA: the Dance (1909) by Henri Matisse. The painting was experienced as “unrewarding” by some art critics, maybe because of its lack of sexuality, with which most female nudes are represented in art history.
Henri Matisse, Dance (I), 1909, MoMA, New York
Here are my thoughts about it, which I also shared in the Coursera discussion forums:
I do not think that the paining is unrewarding, just the opposite. I like very much the lack of sexuality. Depicting sexuality is always related to desire, which here is completely missing. For me the nakedness of the women represents freedom: freedom of the convention of the clothes and of society, freedom of emotion, freedom of desire or necessity (from this point of view it also reminds of Henri Rousseau’s The Dream). The women are also free of the conventions of representing women in art: They are not there to please anybody, completely ignorant of the viewer or the male gaze, which in itself is a very rewarding thought 🙂 Their dance is harmonious and peaceful, neither joyful, nor unhappy, just as peaceful as the color palette that Matisse has chosen. The painting somehow reminds me of the use of color and the peacefulness of Mark Rothko’s paintings (e.g. White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950):
Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, Private Collection
The colors are full, flat and static and create a contrast to the fluid lines and the movement of the bodies. I also find that the MoMA Dance is very different from the Dance II in the Hermitage, which evokes very different emotions and for me it is the opposite of Dance I: The composition remains the same* but the change of the color of the bodies from pink to orange-red and the more expressive lines create a sense of dynamism and even a bit of aggression. I don’t know if it is because of the reproduction or the painting itself, but to me it seems that even the sky looks more dynamic, consisting not of one solid color but of changes in the tone. In terms of gender one could probably define the MoMA Dance as the more feminine and the Hermitage Dance as the more masculine painting, if one thinks in the categories “peace”, “harmony” = feminine and “aggressive”, “dynamic” = masculine.
Henri Matisse, Dance (II), 1910, Hermitage, St. Peterburg
*It should be noted that Dance (I) was made as a compositional study of Dance (II). This could explain the simplicity of the earlier painting.