Is it possible to create a work of pure joy – one entirely free from any trace of trouble or sadness? Henri Matisse believed it might be. “What I dream of,” the pioneering modernist painter explained to an interviewer in 1909, “is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter... a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” That same year, Matisse began work on a canvas that is widely admired not only as one of the most joyous in all of art history but also one of the greatest: La Danse (1909-10) – that pulsing apotheosis of rhythm and form in which a quintet of nude figures gyrate rapturously, hand-in-hand, in a circle for eternity.
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Commissioned to adorn a staircase in the Moscow mansion of the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, Matisse’s famous work is actually a blow up of a relatively small detail of a group of six dancers seen in the distance of a compositionally more complex painting that the artist created a few years earlier: Le bonheur de vivre, or The Joy of Life (1906).
“I imagine a visitor coming in from the outside,” Matisse explained in an interview with the critic Charles Estienne in 1909, describing how he expected Shchukin’s guests to experience La Danse: “The first floor invites him. One must summon up energy, give a feeling of lightness.” Described variously by critics as “a whirl in ecstasy” and “the most beautiful painting of the modern world”, Matisse’s La Danse is surely proof positive that a work of unqualified joy is indeed possible. Or is it?
Look closer and something begins to unsettle the painting’s cheery choreography near the very centre of the canvas, knocking its blissfulness off balance – an awkward tug of gravity that tethers the “feeling of lightness” for which Matisse was aiming. The joyous suspension that Matisse intended to evoke is dramatically tripped up and brought crashing down when our eyes finally fall on what is easily overlooked amid the exuberant whirl of music and muscle: the grip that has suddenly slipped loose between the hand of the figure in the centre foreground of the painting and the backward reach of the dancer to her (and our) left, who seems unaware of the calamity about to unfold behind her.
Once spotted, the chink in the chain is impossible to unsee as the ecstatic electricity that only moments before seemed to whirr without end through Matisse’s work begins to short circuit. The figure in the foreground no longer appears to us in graceful command of her spinning body. She lunges desperately to regain connection while her left knee begins to buckle, bracing for what promises to be a bruising fall. Rather than be locked in an orbit of endless grace and gaiety, the dancers we realise are forever frozen on the verge of perilous collapse. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the inevitable (and, ultimately, fortunate) fate of every great work of art that seeks to grasp the unseizable: a moment of unalloyed joy.
If you think I’m being unnecessarily negative, consider another example: Paul Cézanne’s luminous still life Apples, Bottle, and the Back of a Chair (1902-6), a late watercolour by the post-Impressionist pioneer, whose lucent strokes seem emphatically to affirm life’s potential for joy. In his celebrated study of modern art, The Shock of the New, the historian and critic Robert Hughes insists Cézanne’s watercolour belongs to “the most joyous part of [Cézanne’s] life’s work”. Of the technique with which the painter magicked joyfulness from thin air and thinning pigment, Hughes passionately observed: “One can almost see the swift dabs of transparent red, yellow, and blue drying on the sketchbook in Provençal heat, fixed by the sun so that they could be rapidly worked over… Watercolour let Cézanne record aspects of the landscape that the weightier medium [of oils] could not so promptly fix” – namely, according to Hughes, “the mistiness and iridescence of light”, from which such joyfulness springs.
For all its visual vibrancy, however, the work’s true power lies elsewhere – in its quiet comprehension of loss. What at first seems a ‘joyous’ celebration of inner light is, on further reflection, a luminous meditation on loneliness. The painting, as the art historian Carol Armstrong writes in her book Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolours, is aware of all that has come before it and looks back to “Cézanne’s wild early years, when he painted orgiastic banquets”. As Armstrong sensitively notes, tuning into the subtle frequency of solitude that electrifies the work, it’s “as if someone has finally been invited for dinner or dessert in the studio and even been offered a seat at the table… And yet, poignantly, there is nobody there at all”, as the superficial joyfulness of ebullient abundance is ultimately tempered by the realisation of a deeper emptiness.
The pivot from joy to sadness that intensifies the meaning of Cézanne’s work chimes with the writing of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, whose understanding of “That sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind” helped shape cultural consciousness. In his influential poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798), Wordsworth holds in eloquent equilibrium both an acknowledgement of “the still sad music of humanity”, against which our being in the world is soulfully set, and “the deep power of joy”, that enables us “to see into the life of things”.
Sadness is the axle against which the spokes of joy spin. It rotates in even the seemingly giddiest of paintings, such as the French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s much-adored The Swing (c 1767) – a work that, at first glance, seems utterly unencumbered by the tethers of sadness. “Fragonard charged the whole painting,” the critics Hugh Honour and John Fleming observe in their book The Visual Arts: A History, “with the amorous ebullience and joy of an impetuous surrender to love. In a shimmer of leaves and rose petals, lit up by a sparkling beam of sunshine, the girl, in a frothy dress of cream and juicy pink, rides the swing with happy, thoughtless abandon.” She may be thoughtless, but we’re not. Her pendulating joy is bracketed by an allegory of time’s uncurbable elapse: the reclining young man with rosy cheeks who holds his hat out to her in the lower left corner of the work and the ageing man he will soon become, standing in the shade behind her, desperately trying to rein in the ropes of time. Joy isn’t an endless perpetual motion we can take for granted, but one ephemerally propelled by perishable muscle.
A powerful painting helps us cope with sadness by offering us a way out of the pain, not by pretending sadness doesn’t exist
No one understood better the synergies of joy and sadness than Vincent van Gogh, whose work and psyche were invigorated and unsettled by the irresolvable friction between those contrary feelings. “It is not true that Van Gogh never sold a work,” the critic Laura Cumming says of an underappreciated milestone in the artist’s career in her brilliant survey of self-portraiture A Face to the World: “a young Scotsman he met in Paris bought a picture directly from him – a basket of apples, surging like a plucky raft on a sea of brushstrokes so exuberant the canvas is practically overflowing: joy in all things”.
Interrupting the surging exuberance of yellow strokes and giddy gold dashes that hoist the basket and propel it forward into our imagination, however, is an undertow of bruising blues to the left of the woven raft that trouble its trajectory. “For years,” Simon Schama says, reflecting on the inseparability of sadness and joy in Van Gogh’s work, “he had struggled to realise a vision of total absorption within the vital surge of nature, a sensation so electrifying that it would make the loneliness of modern life disappear”. Schama concludes: “For poor Vincent, however, sometimes extreme joy was indistinguishable from extreme pain.” Ultimately, the menacing undercurrent that begins to gather and threaten Van Gogh’s still life does not diminish the work’s power but rather raises the stakes and establishes an impending peril that impels our eyes to cling to the raft all the more urgently.
The truth is, we don’t want paintings of unmitigated joy: because life itself is never so pure. A powerful painting helps us cope with sadness by offering us a way out of the pain, not by pretending sadness doesn’t exist or by erasing it from the surface of being. Matisse’s work is greater because it shows us life as it really is: a short step away from disaster. A great work of art helps us prepare ourselves to pick up the pieces when things fall apart. It doesn’t expunge from existence all trace of pain and suffering. Such a work, even if it were possible, wouldn’t be beautiful because it wouldn’t be true.
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