The miracle of Matisse's ''Dance'' lies in its exquisite balance of the ecstatic and the controlled. And in its ability to communicate an extraordinarily direct sense of joy with an absolute economy of means.
This is due partly to the simplicity of its composition and the starkness of its color--as well as to the joyous abandon of the dancers depicted in it. Of equal importance, however, is the clarity of its draftsmanship, the directness with which Matisse distilled the complex forms and movements of the dancers into a few lines, and then distilled those lines into a linear arabesque capable of articulating and representing the full flow and actuality of the dance.
It's a masterly performance, which has remained unmatched (except for Matisse's own variants) since its execution in 1909.
Now I know there are those who will see the drawing in this work as clumsy and ''incorrect,'' who will question the anatomical imprecision, the ungainly proportions, and the ''poorly'' drawn details (most especially in the hands and faces) of the various figures. And who will decide as a result that the painting is ugly and childish - or redeemed only by its color or its overall sense of joy.
This negative reaction is more likely to occur in front of a small black-and-white photograph of the painting than in front of the work itself. The original is so huge--roughly 81/2 by 123/4 feet--and is so freely and loosely brushed, that we tend to experience it more as an event, as a celebration, than as a picture, or a flat image on a wall.
Seen in actuality, the specifics of this work--and that very much includes its anatomical details--are of little initial importance. What matters is the size and the scope of the emotions activated and released by this work, as well as the wonderful sense of life and well-being it engenders.
It is only after the initial effect has worn off, or has been assimilated into a slightly more critical attitude, that we are apt to pay close attention to the manner in which all this was brought about. And it is at this point that the viewer, depending on his tastes and experience, will accept or reject the art of this painting on the basis of its formal conception, style, or technique.
It has been my experience that most viewers, once they've responded to the painting's vitality and exuberance, are perfectly satisfied with the shorthand nature of Matisse's draftsmanship. They feel that to ''correct'' its drawing, or to flesh out its color, would be to destroy its carefully contrived balance of subject and form.
I heartily agree. In fact, I've tried, over the years, to imagine how it would look if more classically or more ''correctly'' drawn, and I've always ended up preferring it as it is. It may look like an overblown sketch or like the clumsy attempt of a child to portray a circle of dancers, but it is actually as sophisticated a work of art, as perfect a ''marriage'' between theme and style, as we've achieved in this century.
One of 20th-century modernism's most fundamental principles has been that a painting's integrity, its formal logic and intactness, must always take precedence over an ''accurate'' rendering upon canvas of the way physical reality appears to the eye. This, of course, is most obvious in Cubism and in other geometric and nonobjective styles of this century. But it also holds in such work as Matisse's, in which nature is not so much denied as simplified and distilled.
Matisse presented 20th-century painting with a valid alternative to the geometric vision beginning to dominate our cultural landscape with the advent of Cubism and Constructivism. He refused to turn pictorial reality into right angles, circles, or mechanically perfect parallel lines, and insisted on retaining at least a semblance of respect for the appearance of things.
''Dance'' was one of his major opening guns in this battle for his own particular kind of painterly vision and sensibility. It was also one of his most successful actualizations of that vision. In its simplicity and monumentality, its joyous celebration of life, it stands quite alone in 20th-century art. To understand it fully one must see it as a powerful pictorial idea that erupted upon the art world over seventy years ago, and helped to revolutionize painting. It should also be recognized as one of our great lyrical challenges to conformity, creative complacency, and the inexorableness of tradition. But most of all, we should be aware that it represents one of those rare moments in human history when genius and sensibility managed to expand our creative frontiers.