BMA shines spotlight on dance in artwork

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Carol Sorgen
Matisse’s “Seated Dancer,” 1925-1926, from the series Ten Dancers.
BMA: The Cone Collection

When it comes to dance as an art form, Baltimore gets short shrift. But a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) may make up for that, at least temporarily…or, then again, leave us yearning for more.

“Matisse’s Dancers” is an intimate exhibition of more than 30 dance-themed prints, drawings and sculptures by French artist Henri Matisse. On view in two of the Cone Collection galleries now through Feb. 24, 2013, the exhibition (dedicated in memory of the artist’s grandson and BMA National Trustee Claude Duthuit) spans three decades of the artist’s career — from sculptures created in 1909-11 to delicate drawings of dancers sketched in 1949.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a rarely shown series of 11 transfer lithographs — drawn in 1931-32, but published after Matisse’s death in 1954. They show a dancer/acrobat moving through various positions that evolve into an abstraction of reality, movement and shape.

The BMA has the largest and most significant collection of works by Matisse in the world, with approximately 1,500 works, including oil paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, books, textiles, and a ceramic vessel, as well as 220 drawings, prints, and copper plates from the artist’s first illustrated book, Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé.

This exhibition highlights another facet of the museum’s Matisse collection, according to Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs. “As if we were present in the studio, we see how Matisse observes a dancer moving through various positions,” he said. “With just a few drawn lines, he captures the essence of the figure’s motion.”

Matisse, who was fascinated by the human figure, created the 1931-32 lithograph series about the same time as his famous “Dance” mural in the Barnes Collection, recently unveiled in Philadelphia. “The Dance II” is a 15’ high x 45’ long triptych that was created at the request of art collector Albert C. Barnes after he met Matisse in the United States.

(An earlier pair of works, known as “The Dance” and “Music,” which are part of the Hermitage collection in Russia, were commissioned in 1910 by Sergey Shcukin, one of the leading Russian collectors of French late 19th and early 20th-century art. Until the Revolution of 1917, they hung on the staircase of his Moscow mansion.)

Barnes agreed to pay Matisse $30,000 for the mural, which was expected to take a year, but wound up taking two. Though the project was said to have left the artist physically and emotionally drained, Matisse was pleased with the final result. In a letter to his son, he wrote: “It has a splendor that one can’t imagine unless one sees it….”

Some critics believe that the Barnes Dance mural was responsible for a change in direction of Matisse’s art, from more immobile figures — such as those seen in an earlier series of prints of dancers from 1926-27 — to simpler, colorful, more abstract figures that convey more of a sense of movement than his earlier works.

Henri Matisse’s “Dancer Reflected in Mirror,” 1927.
BMA: The Cone Collection

Rodin and Degas works, too

In addition to his dance-themed prints and drawings, Matisse made sculptures of dancers that allowed him to explore the challenges of capturing movement in three dimensions.

Two early Matisse sculptures of dancers and his well-known “Serpentine” sculpture are also part of the BMA exhibition, along with works by a previous generation of artists who were equally fascinated with dancers, Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas.

While Degas is particularly identified with dance — more than half of his works depict dancers, and his tulle-clad “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” at the BMA is one of his best-known pieces —Rodin came late in his career to a love for dance and dancers.

In 1906, at the age of 66 and already famous as a sculptor, Rodin saw a performance of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in Paris. It was love at first sight, and he wrote later, “I contemplated them in ecstasy. There is an extraordinary beauty, a perfect beauty, about these slow, monotonous dances, which follow the pulsating rhythm of the music… [The Cambodians] have taught me movements I had never come across anywhere before…”

Rodin followed the dancers from Paris to Marseille, where he spent a week observing them, but it was a week that was to inspire 150 of his most famous drawings.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is located at Art Museum Drive. Admission is free. The museum is open Wednesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

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