Room 2: Dancers

Matisse was fascinated by dance throughout his career. In 1937 he began to design the scenery and costumes for a ballet choreographed by Léonide Massine to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony #1.

Matisse translated Shostakovich’s music into five colours and Massine in turn gave these symbolic meanings: white for man and woman, yellow for wickedness, blue for nature, red for materialism and black for violence.

The ballet scenery developed from an earlier mural project, commissioned by American collector Albert Barnes. Matisse described Massine’s reaction to his cut paper mural studies: ‘…he was captivated by the great dancing movement, the grand rhythm of my composition: “That’s the kind of dance I hope to see one day! Wouldn’t you care to help me by redoing it as a ballet set?”’

For Matisse, cut paper was a way of experimenting. Looking closely you can see how Matisse layered pieces of the same colour to create the shape he wanted, sometimes using tacks to attach them to the paper. But this was still a means to an end and he made efforts to keep the technique a secret.

Family activity

Matisse loved dance and music. In room 2 you can see his designs for the costumes and set for a ballet. His book – called Jazz – is in room 3.

Jazz musicians often add their own creative response to a tune rather than strictly following a score: improvising. Matisse felt this was what he was doing making this book.

Choose an artwork - do different colours or parts of the picture make different sounds or inspire different movements?

Download the full guide for families [PDF 535 Kb] and bring it with you on your visit to the exhibition, or you can pick up a copy at the exhibition entrance.