Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Matisse’s Barnes ‘Dance’ mural & site-specificity

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Until yesterday morning, when the Philly Inquirer ran this apparently promotional video, it had not occurred to me that The Barnes Foundation would move Henri Matisse‘s The Dance (1932-33) mural to the Barnes’s new site in downtown Philadelphia. After all, the Matisse was created as a site-specific artwork. This is not my formulation, it is the artist’s.

Now, that said, to the best of my knowledge, “site-specificity,” was not a common term in 1930s artistic practice. However, I think that the initial art historical record, Matisse’s early ’30s comments, makes it clear that he thought he was creating a mural for a specific place, that The Dance was intended to be seen at a particular site and in a particular context, and that the work that would be viewed in this certain way. To return to today’s lexicon, he considered the Barnes mural to be site-specific.

I have contacted The Barnes Foundation with an inquiry regarding the separation of The Dance from the Paul Cret-designed building in Merion and hope to be able to share its explanation soon. In the meantime, here are Matisse’s thoughts on the creation and siting of The Dance. (All quotes are translated from the French for and are taken from “Matisse on Art, revised edition” edited by Jack Flam and published by the University of California Press in 1995.)

In 1931, Teriade asked Matisse “what he thought about [the Barnes mural].” Matisse:

“I could have contented myself with my acquisitions of color harmonies, which have proved to be pleasurable, and with stirring or communicative arabesques. But I find myself standing before my work like a man who has never painted. I only know one thing, the place it must be part of, and the spirit of the milieu in which it should sing.”

In March of 1933, just before Matisse had the mural shipped from his studio in Nice to Barnes, he granted an interview to Dorothy Dudley. Matisse had known Dudley, the sister of a painter he knew, since 1925. Flam wrote that Matisse’s comments to Dudley make up “one of his most absorbing accounts of this project.” Flam published Dudley’s entire article, with Matisse’s quotes contained within it. I’ve cited it here as Flam presented it.

Matisse indicated the alcove across the room from the decoration: “You will come in here, it is best to see the painting from here.” Entering with us he showed us a blueprint of the Barnes museum, and then a plan of the room which his painting would complete. Then the elevation of the wall to be decorated: three French windows the length of it, six metres high, “through which one sees only the lawn, only green and flowers and bushes perhaps; one does not see the sky.” Above the doors three arched spaces reaching to the vaulted ceiling, so that the painting would be influenced by the triplicate shadow of the vaults. Then the elevation fo the opposite wall where above the windows were two balconies with arched doorways, to be hung with Arab or Indian embroideries, very beautiful he said.

“And it is from these  balconies,” he explained, “that one will see the decoration fully as we see it now. From the floor of the gallery one will feel it rather than see it, as it gives a sense of the sky above the green conveyed by the windows. Between them hang pictures, in this space The Card Game by Cezanne, in this Renoir’s Family, here The Models by Seurat, beyond Madame Cezanne in the Green Hat, as well as several other canvases of the very first order. It is a room for paintings; to treat my decoration like another picture would be out of place. My aim has been to translate paint into architecture, to make of the [painting] the equivalent of stone or cement. This, I think, is not often done any more. The mural painter today makes pictures, not murals.”

“[M]y decoration should not oppress the room, but rather should give more air and space to the pictures to be seen there. The arches were four metres wide and three and a half high. I saw that the surface to be decorated was extremely low, formed like a band. Therefore all my art, all my efforts consisted in changing apparently the proportions of this band. I arrived then, through the lines, through the colors, through energetic directions, at giving to the spectator the sensation of flight, of elevation, which makes him forget the actual proportions, much too short to crown the three glass doors — with the idea always of creating the sky for the garden one sees through the doors.”

Dudley concluded her article by leaping forward in time, by visiting Matisse again in his studio after he had been to America to install the mural.

Had everything gone as he expected? “J’etais ravi,” he said. “I reached Merion on a Friday and all was installed by Monday. As soon as I saw the decoration in place I felt that it was detached absolutely from myself, and that it took on a meaning quite different from what it had had in my studio, where it was only a painted canvas. There in the Barnes Foundation it became a rigid thing, heavy as stone, and one that seemed to have been spontaneously created at the same time with the building.

“Barnes said, ‘One would call the place a cathedral now. Your painting is like the rose window of a cathedral,'” Matisse showed me photographs taken from the balcony and from the door of the room. One of them from below made an oblique version of the dancers in one archway that amplified the roundness of the bodies: “And when one looks from this angle,” he said, “one would say, too, it is like a song that mounts to the vaulted roof.”

In 1934 Matisse wrote a series of letters to Soviet art critic Alexander Romm, who was in the process of writing a book about Matisse. As a result, Flam notes, Matisse’s letters to Romm were in answer to questions that Fromm had put to him and were to be considered statements from the artist to the public, rather than personal notes to a correspondent.

With this letter to Romm, dated January 1. 1934, Matisse included black-and-white photographs of the Barnes mural.

The other colors: pink, blue, and the nudes of a uniformly pearl grey, form the whole musical harmony of the work. Their frank contrasts, their decided relationships, give an equivalent of the hardness of the stone,a nd of the sharpness of the ribs of the vault, and give the work a grad mural quality — a very important point since this panel is placed in the upper part of the large gallery of the Foundation, which is filled with easel paintings — it was logical clearly to differentiate my work of architectural painting.

The Merion panel was made especially for the place. In isolation I consider it only as an architectural fragment. It is really immovable, so much so that I foresee that these photos will be only of little interest to you in spite of my explanations.”

On February 14, 1934 Matisse again wrote to Romm:

Didn’t Raphael and Michelangelo, despite the abstraction resulting from all the richness of mind that they expended on their murals, weigh down their walls with the expression of this humanity, which constantly separates us from the ensemble, notably in the Last Judgment? This human sentiment is possible in a picture — a picture is like a book — its interest does not overwhelm the spectator who must go in front of it; the place it will hang is not fixed in advance. It can change places without essentially modifying its place. The painter than has more freedom to enrich it.

Architectural painting depends absolutely on the place that has to receive it, and which it animates with a new life. Once it is placed there, it cannot be separated. It must give the space enclosed by the architecture the atmosphere of a wide and beautiful glade filled with sunlight, which encloses the spectator in a feeling of release in its rich profusion. In this case, it is the spectator who becomes the  human element of the work.

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  1. The whole Barnes situation is a total disaster.

    It has become one big mess after another, and the messes never seem to get fully resolved. But at the end of the day the “New Barnes” is really only after one thing – the ability to leverage the art collection into some kind of financial windfall.

    Thanks for posting this and at the same time I wish you didn’t have to…


  2. Thomas Del Porte says:

    My guess is that you will not get a response from the Barnes Foundation. They have destroyed so much in the name of access. From Matisse’s mural to the instillation of the whole. It is a great travesty. The good thing is that the sands of time will eventually wash away the memories of what once was. Hopefully.

    It seems that the natural order of things is, from artist studio to the collector and ending in the public trust. What is lost in each step is immense, but the public demands it. Matisse and Barnes are dead… So too is the art that they once made alive.

  3. Nancy Herman says:

    The actions of the Board of Trustees of the Barnes, the “charitable” institutions that support the move and the State of Pennsylvania, have all coalesced to destroy a beautiful piece of history in the name of commerse. In the process they have ignored the wishes of Dr. Barnes and the many people who oppose the move. Matisse will not be the last person to make it clear that what has happened has nothing to do with the intimate experience of viewing art, but his words are a poignant reminder of what is lost.

  4. Matthew M says:

    What about the altarpieces and panels thereof that are in collections completely detached from their original frameworks or settings for which they were designed? Is the Dance mural significant here because we know it in situ unlike, say, a Sassetta? No doubt though that the works’ impact is going to change, but Feast of the Gods is pretty awesome anywhere it is seen.

    Also according to the Spurling bio, didn’t Barnes walk back the price on the mural saying that it was too big for anyone else to buy, so take it or leave it? If true, the mural was treated as a commodity from the beginning.

  5. mdc says:

    To Matthew M: “Treated like a commodity from the beginning” is an overstatement, don’t you think? It was a commission, a contract. Matisse was no naif in such matters, as the Spurling books make clear. There was a fair amount of back-and-forth between two mature men as matters evolved (cost and labor fluctuations, the error of the measurements, shipping, etc.) but nothing out of the ordinary for a project of this scale. This kind of routine exchange has nothing to do with a crass “commodity” attitude I assume you are ascribing to the patron. The quality of Barnes’s collection and the obsessive care in installing it attests to a profound commitment to the mural, far from treating the work as a commodity. Any whiff of this attitude and Matisse would have had nothing to do with him. This is the man who turned his back on a lifetime of patronage from Gertrude Stein.
    And as for you, Thomas Del Porte: “Matisse and Barnes are dead… So too is the art that they once made alive.” I would have to conclude that the art never “lived” for you.

  6. Maire Flynn says:

    Perhaps the new place for the Matisse would be on the floor, so people can walk on it. To move this art would show as much thought and respect.
    This should not be moved. There is such a dramatic view when ascending the stairs that was exactly so well planned by the artist in the place where it is.
    Does anyone think before they do? Was someone drunk when they came up with an idea to move this? This is so sad if this destruction may really happen. I am outraged.

  7. Pierre Arpin says:

    It is sad to see all involved: museum professionals, directors, curators, conservators,municipal officials, a board of trustees- all involved in this supremely unfortunate decision. Viewing the video of the re-installation of the Matisse triptych is an assault to intelligence and to Barnes’ legacy. Please remind me why Barnes’ very expressely stated conditions surrounding his trust were so flagrantly derided. Shame!

  8. […] that he wanted his mural to be a site-specific work. Too bad he didn’t put it in a contract. [Modern Art Notes]Scary scrotum monsters and testicles that turn into blankets are some of the frightful images that […]

  9. […] Monday I published Matisse’s own thoughts on what we would now call the ’site-specificity’ of his The… If you haven’t read what Matisse said and wrote, that link is well-worth a click: Matisse […]

  10. Phil says:

    You make a good case for why Matisse thought it should be site-specific. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on the larger question: why does it matter what Matisse thought? Forgive the naiveté of the question–I’m a music historian, not an art historian, but in my discipline we long ago realized that new contexts for art are often illuminating, and that anyways “authentic” performance practice according to the composer’s wishes is neither sustainable nor all that interesting.

    This Philadelphian is looking forward to actually being able to see this art, in an accessible and much more public setting.

  11. […] himself said about what we we would now call the ’site-specificity’ of the art work. What Matisse said seemed to strongly suggest that he made The Dance for a specific place in a specific building with […]

  12. david says:

    If the Barnes Foundation doesn’t care about about founder’s wishes written in contract and in detail, why would they care about the artist’s?

    If would have been less a travesty to sell a single important painting (which is probably all it takes) from the collection to preserve the original institution than to move it to downtown Philadelphia. This is for Philadelphia and their self-aggrandizing need to build itself into an important tourist location. It’s not about desperation, art, or access, and its especially not about the Barnes’ intentions.

  13. […] outsiders. Both saw their museums as ways to thumb their noses at cultural insiders…”As Tyler Green pointed out a few months ago, there was a Matisse mural in the original house which was considered site-specific. By moving it, […]

  14. […] Tyler Green pointed out a few months ago, there was a Matisse mural in the original house which was considered site-specific. By moving it, […]

  15. […] March I raised questions about whether the Barnes Foundation should have moved Henri Matisse’s apparently site-specific mural The Dance (1932-33). The Barnes not only […]

  16. […] full Hal Jones saga — including the many challenges of moving Henri Matisse’s “The Dance” — is well worth a […]

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