Wer war der Tor, wer der Weise[r],
“Who was the fool, who the wise [man],
Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?
who the beggar or the Emperor?
Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.
Whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”
This rather morbid stanza is not, perhaps, one that you would instinctively associate with Henri Matisse’s Dance (below). Taken from the dialogue accompanying a Danse Macabre painting by Bernt Notke (approx. 1463)1, it serves to remind us of the universal inevitability of death—for the sage as for the fool, for the poor as for the wealthy. In such a moment of sobriety, few things could be further from our thoughts than a group of cavorting merrymakers lost in the moment, rendered in colours that themselves dance with vibrancy. Yet, the connection is closer than you would think…
Although the imagery in Matisse’s famous piece might sooner evoke comparison with William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)—an illustration of a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream—I instead want to draw your attention to a 15th century work by Michael Wolgemut that is no less fantastical but certainly more gruesome.
When I recently happened upon his woodcut depicting a Danse Macabre (above), Matisse’s famous Dance flashed into my mind and I was struck by the resemblance. Of course, there are obvious differences—not least the fact that Matisse’s fecund figures are fully fleshed—but those differences are outweighed by the similarities. In fact, so much so that the two pictures seem to me like variations on the same underlying theme—perhaps even archetype.
In both compositions, a circular arrangement of five figures link together in a rapturous dance. Set against an undulating, featureless landscape, four of the dancers are standing whilst one is recumbent—the figure in the foreground of Matisse’s painting could be interpreted as lying down, ‘buried’ beneath the line of the horizon like the skeleton in the foreground of Wolgemut’s illustration. And before you point out that the musician in Wolgemut’s Danse Macabre has been left out by Matisse, let me remind you that Dance has a twin sister: Music (below). It depicts—you guessed it—musicians (and singers), including one on a wind instrument.
Matisse was known for his love of life, which spills abundantly from his bright and fluid artworks. And his joie de vivre became all the more heightened after his battle with cancer, which left him wheelchair- and bed-bound. Not dissimilarly, Danse Macabre, as an artistic genre of late-medieval allegory, emerged in response to Europeans’ intense sufferings and close acquaintance with death in those times (recurring famines, the Hundred Years’ War, and not least the Black Death). A close shave with death whets one’s appetite for joy and amusement while still possible—“a last dance as cold comfort” (Kvlt of Nyx).
Whilst it is explicitly in the face of death that the Danse Macabre affirms life, death is more subtly implicit in Matisse’s life-affirming work. Perhaps he took direct or indirect (through Blake) inspiration from Wolgemut’s woodcut, or it might have been the case that Matisse was unconsciously expressing the same feelings as his medieval ancestors. Either way, Dance can be seen as a discreet memento mori, be it knowingly disguised or unwittingly profound.
(Hero image: Thomas Allen, collage of Matisse’s Dance and Wolgemut’s Danse Macabre)
- The Lübecker Totentanz (Dance of Death) by Bernt Notke (approx. 1463) was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942, but an image of it is available on Wikipedia.
henri-matisse.net: Life and painting
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Wolgemut