Isadora Duncan / Matisse & Rodin

January 5, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive
isadora duncan at musee bourdelle / Matisse & Rodin at Musee Rodin, Paris

“Soir Antique” (1908), by Alphone Osbert (1857-1939), one of many artists inspired by Isadora Duncan. © Petit-Palais/Roger-Viollet © ADAGP

Having gone through an Isadora Duncan phase in my youth, during which I read all the biographies and saw Karel Reisz’s 1968 film Isadora, I thought I knew all I cared to

isadora duncan at musee bourdelle / Matisse & Rodin at Musee Rodin, Paris

“Soir Antique” (1908), by Alphone Osbert (1857-1939), one of many artists inspired by Isadora Duncan. © Petit-Palais/Roger-Viollet © ADAGP

Having gone through an Isadora Duncan phase in my youth, during which I read all the biographies and saw Karel Reisz’s 1968 film Isadora, I thought I knew all I cared to know about the innovative dancer who at the turn of the 20th century kicked off her shoes, donned a flowing and revealing Greek-style tunic, and defied the rules of ballet to create a form of improvisational modern dance that has since spawned far too many bad imitators.

If I hadn’t been dragged to it by a friend fascinated by the period, then, I might have missed out on a rich exhibition at the Musée Bourdelle, “Isadora Duncan: Une Sculpture Vivante” (through March 14). What had the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) to do with Duncan? Plenty, it turns out. Duncan, who lived the bohemian lifestyle to the full, was a major celebrity in Belle Epoque Paris (as attested to by the number of period women’s magazines with feature articles on her included in the show) and was a friend or acquaintance of most of the Paris-based artists of the day. She was also an inspiration for many of them, among them Bourdelle, who met Duncan in 1903 and saw her as the very incarnation of dance. He once made 150 sketches of her during a single performance.

He also attempted to capture her movements in stone, and she and Vaslav Nijinsky, another revolutionary dancer of the time, provided the inspiration for most of his dance-related sculptures. Some of the results are permanently on display on the façade of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées (15, avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris), decorated with bas-reliefs by Bourdelle.

But the show goes far beyond the work of Bourdelle – whose elated, almost calligraphic sketches of the dancer on the move are also on show – presenting many other artworks inspired by Duncan, including photos of her by Edward Steichen, paintings by the likes of Maurice Denis (responsible for the wall paintings in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées), and a fabulous statue of an ecstatic dancer, “La Fille Danseuse,” by Rik Wouters. There are also portraits of aristocrats and society figures in whose salons she got her start as a performer. Many of the latter, among them the Comtesse de Greffulhe and Madeleine Lemaire, were also friends of Marcel Proust, but the paths of the dancer and the great writer never seem to have crossed.

Among the rarer and more revealing pieces in the show are a copy of Duncan’s posthumously published autobiography, My Life, annotated by her once-upon-a-time lover and the father of one of her children, theater director and set designer Gordon Craig, who was not in agreement with many of the book’s statements about him. He objected, for example, to the sentence, “I, like one hypnotized, allowed him to put my cape over my little white tunic.” In the margin he noted: “It is impossible for Isadora to have written ‘I allowed him to.’ She just couldn’t have been able to pen the word ‘allow’.” He also objected to her description of his thumbs as “murderer’s thumb,” noting that the expression used by his mother, the renowned actress Ellen Terry, was “sculptor’s thumbs.”

Other rarities include a 33-second film (the only one known to exist) of Duncan dancing in a garden, twirling around with head thrown back and arms raised to the heavens, and, poignantly, a scrap of the red scarf she was wearing when she died, strangled by it when it was caught in the wheels of the open-top car she was riding in.

If you are one of those people who think that Duncan’s dancing can be reduced to a lot of hippie-ish barefoot prancing and twirling, do go see this show. You will discover a woman who – like George Sand – created a life that was a work of art in itself and who is often remembered more for the drama of her biography than her actual work. You are also sure to enjoy the visit to this wonderful red-brick museum, built around the preserved Montparnasse studios of Bourdelle and painter Eugène Carrière, some of whose works are also included in the exhibition.

As the show demonstrates, Bourdelle was only one of many sculptors inspired by Duncan; Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), some of whose work is presented in the show at the Musée Bourdelle, also knew her and made many attempts to capture movement in drawings and statues by studying Duncan, Nijinsky and other dancers. A show at the Musée Rodin, “Matisse & Rodin,” makes a nice complement to the Musée Bourdelle’s exhibition. While its goal is to compare and contrast the works of Henri Matisse and Rodin, it contains a number of dance-related drawings and sculptures by both artists.

Although the two were not friends (Rodin treated Matisse condescendingly when the younger artist paid him a visit and showed him his work in 1899), the two traveled in the same circles, and that the latter obviously admired and even

isadora duncan at musee bourdelle / Matisse & Rodin at Musee Rodin, Paris

View of the exhibition “Matisse & Rodin.”

copied the master sculptor’s work is made evident in his statue “The Serf” (1900-03), which borrows the stance of Rodin’s “Walking Man” (1877) and is clearly inspired by it.

One of the revelations of this show is Rodin’s drawings of dancers, who seem to dance on the page under his free-moving yet sure hand. Many of Matisse’s drawings look awkward in comparison, although when he got a line drawing right, it could be a brilliant distillation of his subject.

This exhibition presents almost all of Matisse’s sculptures, showing them alongside comparable ones by Rodin, allowing us to see how the artist’s style became increasingly abstract as it evolved. Particularly interesting is a series of heads of “Jeannette” made between 1910 and ’13, in which the model is gradually reduced to her essence, to the point of caricature, and another series of four large reliefs of a woman seen from the back, which became increasingly stylized and abstract with each new version.

From this show, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that when it comes to sculpture – and even drawing – Rodin is the greater genius.

Heidi Ellison

Musée Bourdelle: 18, rue Antoine Bourdelle, 75015 Paris. Métro: Montparnasse-Bienvenüe or Falguière. Tel: 01 49 54 73 73. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm. Admission: €8 (free for permanent collection). Through March 14. Web site.

Musée Rodin: 79, rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. Métro: Varenne or Invalides. Tel.: 01 44 18 61 10. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5:45pm. Admission: €7.

Reader Terry Seligman writes: I recently ‘retired’ after 18 years as a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where over the years I did a lot of work with Matisse’s ‘The Serf.’ When asked what the sculpture brought to mind, visitors to the museum almost always said Rodin (probably because it was bronze and realistic, i.e., not about the perfection of the human form.) But I learned that the workman who posed for ‘The Serf’ was also used by Rodin in some of his sculptures… another connection between the two.”

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