John Singer Sargent’s Capri Girl on a Rooftop dancing to a tambourine. William H. Johnson’s modernist depiction of an African American couple jitterbugging. The iconic picture of an exuberant flatboatman dancing a jig by George Caleb Bingham. These are a handful of the artworks gathered in the exhibit “The Art of American Dance,” opening Oct. 22 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
Organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it ran from March to June, the exhibit features approximately 90 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs from 1830 to 1960 selected by Jane Dini, associate curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and former assistant curator of American art at the DIA.
Dini studied classical dance before turning her focus to art history. Asked about her inspiration for organizing the show, she explained, “My mission was to let dance be seen as an equal to the media which depicts it.”
Through the eyes of American artists, the power of dance cuts across the boundaries of class, race, ethnicity and culture, from early renditions of rustic barn dances to Native Americans engaged in a highly choreographed Bull Dance. Ladies bedecked in their best finery for a ball contrast with raggedy street urchins, but the utter joy of movement, whether precise or uninhibited, connects them all.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, certain personalities in the world of dance attracted the nation’s attention and were frequently portrayed by artists. Isadora Duncan was a favorite subject of artists such as Abraham Walkowitz, John Sloan and Robert Henri. The sculptor Malvina Hoffman was much inspired by the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, as were the photographer Arnold Genthe and the painter George Luks. Portraits of dance-world celebrities such as Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker and Martha Graham mingle with those of anonymous enthusiasts.
As the exhibition’s works move further into the 20th century, we see a number of paintings explode, not just with the exhilaration of the moving figures, but with dynamic compositions and high color. The Charleston, the Lindy Hop and the Cake Walk are immortalized with a sense of modernity and abandon.
Dance has inspired countless artists to capture the vitality, elegance or fluidity of movement. Says Dini, it “deserves to be seen by a larger public and seen within the context of a museum space.” Dini has largely concentrated on 19th and early 20th century works in her career, but when asked about a favorite work from the exhibition, her choice was a surprise: the 1950 likeness of a reclining male dancer by Alice Neel. Dini said it speaks to her not just as a captivating portrayal but also as a masterwork by a woman artist.
The exhibit’s myriad images reflect varied approaches. Some artists sought to tell a story, others to document a particular moment for history, and still others to simply rise to the challenge of depicting bodies in motion. Brought together in “The Art of American Dance,” they offer a compelling look at an art form that is universally loved.
“The Art of American Dance” continues through Jan. 16 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Ark. For hours and information, call 479.418.5700 or visit crystalbridges.org