01. The Meaning of a Dance
Dance often acts as an intersection for Christians’s oscillating impulses between hedonism and asceticism. Confused about God’s intent for our physicality—and often unsure how to treat our physical selves—we alternately exploit our bodies for momentary pleasure or shun them as things to be hidden.
Matisse’s famous painting La Danse confronts this ambivalence. From one perspective, the dancers appear pure and Edenic. From another, they seem bent on selfish pleasure and out of control. While either extreme may compel us at any moment, we can begin to reconcile our conflicting perspectives and embolden our spirituality through prayerful meditation on the painting.
Esteemed along with Picasso, Henri Matisse was one of the most influential modern artists of the twentieth century. The French painter spanned five decades and multiple movements, and is best known for his bright and expressive use of color. He painted La Danse in 1909 as a composition for a later, similar painting of the same name. It is an enormous piece, over eight feet by twelve feet in size. Photographs survive of the artist at work on the mural with a tall rod, standing on a stool and stretching his arm above him to draw the broad strokes in La Danse.
02. Seeing the Dance
Begin by meditating on the painting as a whole. Slow down and take in the entire image. Does the dance strike you as a bacchanalian frenzy or an innocent celebration? A hedonistic binge or a heavenly union?
Matisse explained that he used only three colors: “azure blue for the sky, pink for the bodies, and green for the hill.”Antonina Nikolaevna Izergina, ed., Paintings and Sculptures in Soviet Museums: Henri Matisse. Aurora Art Publishers: 1980, 149. Follow the curved line of the hill slope, with green earth on one side and blue heavens on the other. What do the colors suggest to you about the painting’s setting? Take some time to notice your reactions to the piece as a whole, and then to the specific use of color.
Critic Pierre Courthion saw the scene as a point where “the very breath of life, its bursting élan comes forth uninterrupted.”Pierre Courthion, “Matisse and the Dance,” Homage to Henri Matisse. Tudor Publishing: 1970, 45.
What if this is where earth and heaven meet, where the kingdom comes? Notice that the dancers are indifferent to their nakedness; their eyes are closed. Pause a moment in your meditation on the painting. Can you remember a time when you were innocently unaware of your own body? What happened to disrupt that peace? Was it an unwanted or regretted sexual act, a comment about your appearance, or a gradual sense that your body failed to measure up to society’s expectations? Reflect on these experiences.
But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:9–10, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, division of Christian education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)
Shame often causes us to hide our bodies—as Adam and Eve did in the Garden—and pretend that we are not the expressly physical beings that God created us to be. Genesis tells us that sin and shame began with the body, and they linger there still. Offer your feelings to God, knowing that He sees and loves all of you.
03. Reaching or Falling
Watch the dancer in the foreground. She appears to fall, losing her grip on her partner’s hand. She slips and breaks the circle. Spend time with how this feels to you. How have bodily sins like infidelity, eating disorders, addiction and abuse damaged relationships in your community and family? How can you identify with the slipping dancer?
When we use our body against its design, we experience real consequences. Yet Matisse’s bold brushwork rescues us from despair—it suggests instead the wild freedom that we have in Christ. As you absorb the colors and the joy of this painting, remember the redemption story that God is telling about ourselves, both physically and spiritually: God Himself became a man. Jesus bore our sin first on the bodily level, then on the soul level. He asked (and asks) us to enter into redemption physically because He gave us His body to eat. He called the church His body. He demonstrated His power by healing bodies. He was resurrected and appeared to the disciples in His physical body. Reaching back into sacred history, God allowed Abraham and Sarah’s withered bodies to conceive an heir who would be the father of His people.
Sin has distorted our physicality, but Christ is working to restore it. One day the dancer in the foreground will regain her footing and complete the circle. We will enter the painting and keep up with the steps, improvising, intuiting our partner’s every move in an eternal, beautiful, celebratory dance.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. (1 Corinthians 15:42–43, NRSV)
Meditate on what it means for you to begin to put on immortality. How can you participate in Matisse’s dance and proclaim Christ’s victory? What fears hold you back from living so boldly? What would it be like to let go of those fears and enter into the celebration of La Danse?
In this end, this piece is both warning and celebration— it embodies in its strokes the Christian ambivalence toward the body. Ultimately, it is only you, the viewer, by use of your physical viewing, who can decide whether God’s redemption truly does reach every part of our selves.
Acree Graham lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes for design agencies, local zines, and One Twelve Gallery, a space that supports area artists and seeks to glorify God with the act of creation. If you’d like to continue the conversation, she can be reached at acree.graham@gmail. com or at her website, acreegraham.com.