The art of the dance

Robert Duckworth Greenham, Tango Final of British Championship, Blackpool, 1969, s. & d. 1970

Robert Greenham’s painting of this dancing competition can safely be called an eye-catcher. The viewpoint is defined by the velvet sill curving across the lower right-hand corner as being from above, from a box or gallery in the ballroom; this enables the cluster of dancers to be clearly seen, and their movements to be separately visible. At the same time, the composition stretches upwards over the canvas in a formal pattern, caught between the curve of the sill at the bottom and the sweep of a lower barrier at the top. Within this space the opposition of dark male and pastel female figures takes on an almost abstract repetitive quality, which is further reinforced by the echoing shapes of their shadows. Its unique composition emphasizes the movement of each dancing couple making it one of the most lively figure paintings for sale within our collection. This patterning of light and dark, colour and monochrome, gives the painting the feeling of a flat and ornamental piece of decorative art, like a tapestry or a wallpaper design, and creates a dynamic tension with the simultaneous sense of three-dimensional bodies in rapid movement.

William Morris, ‘Cray’ furnishing fabric, 1885

An important element of the mechanics which control these opposites, and which give depth and importance to the painting, is the use of costume to express both the inherent swing of the dance and the stylized flatness of the decorative pattern. Greenham uses the vast diaphanous net petticoats of the 1960s as though they were repeating flowers in a piece of printed fabric – much as William Morris used them: for example in ‘Cray’, which intersperses large blowsy paeony heads with twining branches on a dark ground.

 Degas, Le foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier, 1872, Musée d’Orsay

At the same time, he also uses them as adjuncts of the dancing figures, just as Degas did in his innumerable paintings of the Opéra ballet, where the ballerinas’ flower-like skirts articulate the space of the ballroom and create a sense of movement.

Greenham was interested in film, cinema stills and studio photographs – such as those by Cecil Beaton for Vogue, one of which inspired his portrait of Martita Hunt (post-1943, National Portrait Gallery). The interpretation of a three-dimensional space containing moving figures as a two-dimensional, frozen image, often in black-&-white, seems to have stimulated his ability to simplify and clarify his own compositions; these photographs could be used as tools, not to copy or imitate, but to learn the manipulation of form and design in order to attain the most satisfying composition. In the case of the painting above, the photo which sparked his imagination may have been a related scene taken by Cartier-Bresson ten years earlier.

 Henri Cartier-Bresson, Queen Charlotte’s Ball, 1959. Christie’s Sale, 26 November 2010

The viewpoint is similar; the opposition of slender, black-clad male figures and women in pale, full-skirted gowns is the same; and the implication that light might be used to enhance both the sense of space and the ornamental pattern is also vestigially present. Greenham has taken these features, applied them to a real-life event sometime later, and has remade his sources as a complex and layered work of art.

He has also rationalized the scene as Cartier-Bresson has recorded it: the latter is a striking and beautiful photograph, but it has all the messiness and arbitrariness of real life, whereas Greenham’s interpretation is far more lucid and simplified. Here, his interest in film may also have been at play, since his careful disposition of the swirling skirts across the canvas has much in common with Busby Berkeley’s disciplined choreography in musical films of the 1930s and ’40s.

Gold Diggers of 1933

The Shadow Waltz

The elevated viewpoint chosen for the painting, whilst echoing that in Cartier-Bresson’s photo, also reflects the viewpoint employed in films such as Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, where the complex patterns of the dance are deployed across the ballroom and seen from above, allowing reference to be implied to the social hierarchies of the novel. 

 Emma Bovary catches sight of herself in a looking-glass in the ballroom scene of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, 1949

Greenham’s vision of the dance, then, eye-catching as it already appears at first glance, covers a depth of compositional sophistication, and a network of connections to other contemporary art forms.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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