Dancing with the Beast


Dance I, 1909

Neither of Matisse’s Dance canvasses conveys a sense of gaiety. The dancers, rather than joyfully bursting in spontaneous choreography, are contorted, seemingly forced, as if partaking in a stern ritual.   No one to my knowledge has taken a politicised look at the painting, and there might not have been any intent towards political projection by the artist. Yet, in the age of Trumpism, it is difficult not to cast art, news reporting, everyday utterances, or things otherwise taken for their face value, in a more interpretive light. As a forefather of expressionism, I am sure Matisse would not object to my musings.

What constantly catches my attention is the gap in the ring of dancers. Its place at the foreground must have been intentional, perhaps to provoke some conversation. The dancer at the forefront struggles to link hands with the dancer to her left. She also seems as if being dragged forcefully along this ritual, neither of her feet properly touching the ground. This does not look like someone enjoying a dance. The direction of our heroine’s body suggests that the dance is moving clockwise, in which case she would be leading the others. Yet her oblique posture, and the fact that the first dancer seems to be the one most enjoying himself, indicates that the latter is actually taking charge. Might this paradox be a reference to populism?


Dance II, 1910

The first of the Dance paintings, now part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in New York, was composed in 1909. It served as a preliminary sketch for the second Dance canvas, composed in 1910, and now residing at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It would not be a stretch to say that Matisse could have been politically charged by events of his time.

The first decade of the twentieth century was a time of upheaval and a precursor for a bloody Great War. It saw the expansion of large conscript armies across Europe, setting the stage for long warfare fronts that led to an endless loss of lives. Conscription was only possible through intensifying nationalist sentiments and constructing an incorrigible narrative of virtuousness in the service of king and country. This was the age of perpetuating what Jack Snyder called “strategic myths of empire”; an exaggerated account of threats from abroad coupled with half-truths about the value of an expansionist state. These myths were products of a ruling elite who, aided by monopolies over information, exulted the utility of hard-line stances against their perceived adversaries and, paraphrasing Shakespeare, giddied minds with foreign quarrels to advance their hold on power.

Matisse was perhaps not only wary of bellicose monarchs in France and Central Europe, who used war and the threat of war to justify their atavistic stranglehold on policy. There may have also been an aversion to self-proclaimed illuminati who, in their struggle against tyranny in Eastern Europe, advanced the “ideal” of violent resistance. In either case, citizens were both the object of populism, and its main proponents. They led and simultaneously followed the procession of the pied piper, succumbing to the attractions of romanticizing blind terrorism, and dumb patriotism. Today, as it was then, nationalism and terrorism follow hand in hand, equally fueled by comparable discourses of othering, the suppression of fact-checking, and dissonances of logic.

Before Dance, Matisse had taken a sojourn in North Africa where he was influenced by a rising movement in the arts towards primitivism. Primitivism was a reaction to an evolving scepticism towards enlightenment and technological advancement that flung Europe into the throes of imminent war. Our dancers are intentionally rudimentary in form. They portray the proclivity for generalisation, the affinity for demagoguery and aversion to nuance that characterise the duped subjects-cum-leaders of populism. The “Fauvist” palette—the unsophisticated blue on green and the reddish hue of our protagonists—adds to the ambience of hedonism and visceral fervour. The dancer at the far left exhibits the most grace, signifying perhaps his position atop of the hierarchy of his troupe. As we advance to his left, grace gives way to apish trotting until the last of our dancers is unable to find their ground. Longing to achieve the elegance promised by the premier danseur, she desperately reaches out to close the gap, but her despondent effort is met with aloof disregard. As much as we chase veracity in elite rhetoric, we always fall flat on the hollow promises of populism, and the forced expatiation of ancient grandeur, and present danger.

Populist leaders are only conduits of our frustration. They cannot lead the dance without our consent. They force the formation which we initially suggest, then sanction those of us who break the mould. Dazzled by their moves we keep dancing nonetheless. And after we are muddied, scathed and scabbed, we dance some more.

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