George Segal's dedication to the figure produced work populated with mysterious beings expressing the joyful physical body in motion and raising fundamental questions about the very nature of life, death and existence itself. Segal was fascinated with the goal of conveying physicality in his work, and perhaps none of his sculptures succeeds quite so well at achieving this goal as The Dancers, a graceful circle of four female dancers, and one of his first sculptures in bronze, employing a technique known as double casting, which allowed the work to withstand being displayed out of doors. The Dancers is exceptional, in part because of the undeniable joy and exuberance expressed in the physical language of the dancers' movements, and in part because the work allowed Segal to explore his love of art history and to pay homage to the lineage of great artists who preceded and influenced him. Segal's sculpture was born out of a rare chance the artist had to experience two paintings by one of the greatest figures in modern art.
In interpreting Henri Matisse's La Danse paintings, Segal entered into a sort of dialogue with them, albeit introducing some specific changes. He chose to cast four figures rather than Matisse's five and in doing so he opened the circle, as if to invite spectators to join the dance. When we look at the Matisse canvases, we see that two of the dancers seem to have momentarily lost their handhold, perhaps because of the whirling, accelerating momentum of their dance. Segal chose to incorporate a broader opening between two of the dancers, seeming to extend an invitation to join the circle to anyone who might be present witnessing the dance. If this was his intention here, it signals an open, inviting, and genuine spirit of humanism, not at all a surprise, since this spirit was such a signature element of his work, prevalent throughout his career.
Segal had the opportunity to see the first version of Matisse's Dance, owned by New York's Museum of Modern Art, alongside La Danse II, owned by the Hermitage, Leningrad, brought together at the major Matisse retrospective in Paris in 1970. Just as intensely as Segal was interested in expressing the everyday world around him in his art, comparably great was his passion for the Modernist works he so admired. Segal once remarked, "I love the history of art and I haunt museums every chance I get." (M. Friedman and G.W.J. Beal George Segal: Sculptures, Minneapolis, 1978). And one of the key figures he admired was Matisse.
Henri Matisse created his painting La Danse as part of a commission for the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. A later, final, version La Danse II was exhibited in Paris in 1910. The two, nearly identical, works were criticized early on for a seeming crudeness of composition and a visual flatness of appearance. Later, both of the paintings came to be more perceptively-viewed as conveying a spirit of liberation, capturing the sinewy strength and joyful speed of the five dancers' bodies, the whirling momentum of the dance itself, and the mythical, ritual, timeless nature of the scene, with its resonances of the pagan bacchanal. To offer a sense of the powerful effect of these two paintings within the currents of Modernism, it's worthwhile to note that the paintings came to be associated with the Dance of the Young Girls in Stravinsky's startling Rite of Spring.
The observation has been made broadly of Segal's work that it has a photographic quality, and indeed, many of his sculptures do seem to have been intended to be viewed from one primary, ideal vantage point, so that the narrative expressed by the work may be properly seen. If this is so, The Dancers seems to be an exception, although we might extend the metaphor to call The Dancers cinematic, best suited to the dynamic movement of a motion picture camera, rather than the motion-freezing still camera. Like a whirling, turning movie camera circling a subject, the dancing figures may be viewed and appreciated from any angle, in 360 degrees.
A topic that recurred in his conversations with critics was Segal's decision to choose sculpture precisely because of the mediums' ability to convey the surface contours of the physical realm, and, by extension, to convey spiritual concerns through physical matter. Segal once said, "expressions of spirit are completely dependent on the flesh." (M. Friedman and G.W.J. Beal, George Segal: Sculptures, Minneapolis, 1978). Such was his, one might almost say, faith in the physical realm.
Unlike so many of Segal's sculptures, he chose not to place the figures of The Dancers within a self-contained, enclosed narrative environment. When installed out-of-doors, and thus silhouetted against land and sky, The Dancers seems to achieve a completeness - the actual, physical environment in which it is placed adding ground and sky to enhance, and in a very real sense, to complete the sculpture, echoing that landscape so vividly present in the Matisse compositions. The end result is a remarkable dialogue between a late 20th Century contemporary artist and a master of Modernism, inspiring viewers across time, evoked through an entirely different medium from the original Matisse paintings, bringing delight to new audiences.