Filled with rhythm and colour, La danse, executed in 1938, is an intriguing work that shows Matisse casting a glance to his past, to one of his masterpieces from 1910, yet embarking on a new course through the use of cut-out paper. For it was only the previous year, in 1937, that Matisse had created his first cut-out work, a design for the cover of an edition of Verve magazine, although he had been making use of pieces of paper to plan and organise other works: photographs from the early 1930s show the artist using small pieces of coloured paper, which he would rearrange in endless experimentation in the search for the perfect combination of forms. This was especially the case while he was working on his famous Barnes Foundation commission, The Dance, during the early 1930s. However, it was only in the wake of his Verve cover design that the paper cut-outs became a part of his art in their own right.
La danse thus dates from a crucial period, when the very possibilities of collage were opening themselves to him. While his cut-outs from the mid-1940s had developed a certain established style and idiom, it is interesting to see here the combination of media, and indeed of possibilities, that Matisse was exploring at this germinal stage of their evolution. Matisse's enthusiasm for the cut-out showed the re-emergence in his work of a far more extreme Fauve element that had been increasingly permeating much of his work in recent years. The details of many of the Nice paintings, with their arabesques and opulence, were being discarded in favour of a far more intense means of capturing colour, and therefore life. Fields and planes of brilliant colour were coming once again to dominate his work, and there was no better way for him to manipulate this effect of intense colour than by taking whole sections of it in the form of painted paper. This was usually prepared by his assistants, and then cut and arranged according to Matisse's needs and desires. It is a mark of Matisse's own recognition of the success of this new medium that he took it, within such a short time, to such extremes of possibilities. This became the means through which Matisse created some of his most iconic works.
Whilst the Barnes murals showed Matisse's resurgence of interest in great swathes of unmodulated colour, their position in the Foundation building, in lunettes above windows and therefore against the light, had forced him to adopt more modest hues. However, these fields were largely arranged in fields that avoided any articulation of tone or texture. Thus both in theme and in method, his Barnes murals echoed his Danse of 1910, where the intense red, green and blue of figures, ground and sky are presented in unmollified fields, dazzling the viewer. In the present collage, which shows a reprisal of La danse in its centre, there is thus a similarity in the use of colour both in the original image at the centre, and in the fields of colour that surround it, both in the painted work and the use of bold sections of paper. This creates a poetic resonance, with the viewer understanding that Matisse is looking both forwards and backwards in his use of colour, casting his eye to one of his acknowledged colourist masterpieces while surrounding that image with the new, modern collage frame.
In appropriating one of his own past works, a well-known and instantly recognised masterpiece, and presenting it in a new form, a new context, Matisse has demonstrated not only how contemporary he was around 1910, but also how contemporary he remained in 1938. This sense of appropriation, of self-reference within his own art, appears to add a sense of the conceptual to the work, filled as it is with self-referentiality. Meanwhile, there is a level upon which the framing blocks of colour add a frame, Matisse putting one of his masterpieces on a pedestal, celebrating his own pioneering advances of the past while making pioneering advances in the present.
Despite this, Matisse's use of the collage technique appears to be less an exploration of art theory than a colouristic response to his own work. The balance of the surrounding colours is judged with the inimitable discernment of a master, creating a strangely harmonious impression and letting each individual colour highlight all the others. La danse burns with vitality, reeking of jazz, of movement, and in this way emphasises the theme itself. This sense of raw life, of musicality, is strengthened by the child-like nature of the collage technique. Where Picasso and the Cubists often incorporated collage elements in their works as hooks, actual fragments of reality, Matisse has created something far more whimsical. He belongs to a very different order of magpie, taking bright things merely because they are bright, without any intellectual reason but simply because the means bring about such effective and luminous ends.
Like his first cut-out, La danse appeared in Verve magazine the year it was executed. La danse was used to illustrate an essay on dance by Michaux, along with two other Matisse works. Verve was the brainchild of Tériade, one of the foremost publishers in Paris at the time, especially for avant-garde materials, and this 'revue' showed him at his best. He collaborated with every great artist, and many of the great writers, of the age, be it in the covers that he commissioned, the pictures inside, or the essays. Matisse and Tériade worked on a number of projects together, and this historic union had begun with Matisse's original cover.