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Representing Dance Through Art: A Look Into Cultural and Progressive Dance Portrayals and Interpretations

Claudia Kusznirczuk

Painting, despite – or even, indeed, because of – its artistic, emotional, and creative nature, requires as much innovation and advancement, as an ever developing and advancing science. Thus, in a search for evolution and the achievement of greater artistic competence and knowledge, it is of paramount importance to delve deeper into the thoughts, style and expression of past artists. In doing so, one can gain inspiration from one’s predecessors, an incorporate aspects of their style into one’s own work, which, aside from being conducive to personal development, is simultaneously refreshing and paying homage to the artistic discipline. Furthermore, it is imperative to reflect on how artists draw inspiration from reality, and especially how painting has interacted with other human activities, so as to further the never-ending study of art’s role in society.  One such example is the inextricable link between the disciplines of painting and dance, which fits under the greater umbrellas which is the study of the human form, and the shared human condition, as exemplified by culture.

Some of the many figures to have influenced this field are Henri Matisse and Robert Rauschenberg, whose works involving culture, traditions and dance are of particular interest in the aforementioned area.  This essay will explore three prominent works by Matisse: Nasturtiums with Dance, The Dream and The Romanian Blouse. These works have always struck me deeply, as they display the vitality and passion of my homeland Romania, allowing me to fondly reminisce on my heritage, encouraging my artistic progression, enhanced by the use of colour to emphasise emotions and expressions. Rauschenberg’s set designs and colour coordination of the costumes for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s production of Minutiae and Summerspace and John Cage’s musical accompaniment will also be explored, in relation to dance and pop culture along with sublime influences of these and supporting artists to me.

Chapter 1 – Matisse

Having initially studied to be a lawyer, Matisse’s training in this field endowed him with the ability to slowly build and progress an artistic argument and to draw considered creative conclusions. The meticulousness and detail of his early work was as a result of his training as a draughtsman.  This structured approach was reflected in his artistic pursuits; early on in his career, he studied the techniques of masters and made copies of the works he admired from the Musée du Louvre in Paris. He sustained that duplication and repetition allowed him to hone his skills before embarking on future creative endeavours, and that careful consideration in his art should create an easing effect on the viewer as described below:

‘What I dream of an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’. 1

Matisse strove to achieve this ‘balance’ through deliberation, repetition and simplicity: he was precise in processing his works, repeatedly making or anticipating alterations. In this way, a single theme or concept was developed over time, with gaps of months or even years between one version and the next. Each new version would bear a notable resemblance to the last, but also show development, until, several versions later; the progress would be very apparently directed towards simplicity as details slowly fade. This shows that painting is not simply based on emotion, but is also a calculated progress towards developing a finished product – if that can ever be the case.

He admired the work of contemporary artists of the time, particularly Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rodin and Signac, and strived to emulate their methods.2  Although he spent his early career searching for an artistic identity through numerous attempts at different artistic styles, he eventually was able to find his niche, strength and artistic identity.  His stern conviction that a mastery and sound understanding of established techniques particularly with dance-related subjects are necessary for innovation would later be exemplified in his accomplishments in the Fauvist (Modernist) genre a precursor to Abstract Expressionism.3

Matisse was also concerned with culture and tradition, and how these could be represented in his art.  Influences from acquaintances and fellow artists along with his taste for fabrics and patterns pushed him to develop colourful artworks that had visibly ethnic roots, the essence of which he was able to capture when portraying dance and – of specific interest to me – aspects of Romanian tradition. Although he is not known to ever have travelled to Romania, he frequently conferred with the Romanian painter Theodor Pallady regarding the decorative aspects of Romanian national dress. This friendship instilled a deeper intrigue and fascination for Matisse to incorporate Romanian embroidery into his art – he purchased a number of Romanian embroidered blouses that would later influence a series of artworks. Matisse painted several Romanian blouse works, of which the Green Romanian Blouse of 1939 was possibly the first – among others there are the Plum Blossom and the Dancer Resting, which showcase his keen interest in Romanian culture.

On close observation, the colours and patterns in his series are not entirely true to the traditional styles and are more focused on form and geometric organization, in order to create a vibrant and satisfying image. The embroidering and motifs visible in Matisse’s garments are actually reminiscent of the then-contemporary fashion provocations in Nice (around 1935), which initially stirred his fancy for embroidered shirts and exotic fabrics.4

In successive paintings featuring women in traditional Romanian costume, Matisse improved the patterns and colours to appear closer to true form. Weaved shirts and blouses, rich in history and intertwined with Latin and Slavic designs, vary in their floral geometric patterns and bright colours according to the region and areas. Interestingly, Romanian-style embroidered shirts have come back into popular fashion – a testament to the influence of tradition on even considered modern, the remote reality of an entirely different culture, in fashion as in art.

 Henri Matisse, The Dream, 1940                                  

Henri Matisse, The Romanian Blouse, 1940

Over a number of years, Matisse continued to develop and use embroidered shirts in numerous paintings, featuring prominent blouses in different settings and poses, but almost always with feminine figures.  Most notably The Dream, featuring a sleeping woman in a decorated blouse, and The Romanian Blouse, which amplify decorative and colourful elements. At least 15 iterations or stages of the development of The Dream were necessary for Matisse to be completely satisfied; he focused on the embroidered shirt, trying to perfect the patterns and colours, and not so much on the technical development of the figure or person in the works.5 As the series evolved with each cycle, the faces became less defined and the garments became the main focus of the painting.  In progressing the notion of simplicity, the patterns of the blouse were not overly intricate, and these simplified forms were harmonious in shape and pronounced in colour.  In a similar fashion, he presented flowing, less detailed representations of the human form, and this is particularly noticeable in his depictions of dance, for example in his works Nasturtiums with Dance and Dance.

Matisse was influenced by his travels in Africa and specifically Morocco, where he was exposed to various native cultures. He portrayed native dances, not necessarily presenting a traditional view, but focusing on bold colours, and the expressiveness of the motion he is depicting. His Dance series imagery was repeated in the form of the circle of dancers in a number of paintings, in which naked forms are connected in an unbroken circle that may symbolise a ‘circle of life’– or as in Dance the shape of a heart – to symbolise love, both in an interpersonal and wider cultural sense. Matisse would often use striking, intense shades as a background, using the contrast with the depicted figures to heighten one’s sensibility to their presence. His human forms are simultaneously distinct and conjoined, again suggesting the unity of those partaking in the shared activity.

Henri Matisse, Nastrutiums with Dance, 1912

Henri Matisse, Dance, 1910

Matisse’s works have not been known to mix traditional dance with national dress. Viewing the Romanian costumes in Matisse’s work encouraged me to incorporate Romanian dress into my own art, and explore, through my personal experience of the culture, its relationship with traditional dance. My painting titled Hora is based on traditional Romanian folkloric dance from the Carpathian mountain region, where Romanian embroidery is intricately drawn on the costumes of the dancers, posed in front of a vibrant background, whose red hue pervades the foreground to evoke a positive, bold aura around the group. My paintings Hora and Festival seek to represent a similar sense of community and unity to the dancers of Matisse; the dancers hold each other amiably in a circle, and furthermore the trees and roots in the background and at the bottom suggest a close relationship with one’s figurative roots (ancestry), and to nature, in the shape of one’s homeland.

Claudia Kusznirczuk, Festival, 2019

Claudia Kusznirczuk, Hora, 2019

There is ample evidence of Matisse’s modernist influence even in today’s art; a testament to the continuity of the discipline. Furthermore, along the line of dance, this link becomes even more pronounced, not necessarily just in depictions of dance, but also as art in complement to dance when it is performed, such as in a set design and artist production.

Chapter 2 – Robert Rauschenberg

Advancing a short distance in time from Matisse, we can find numerous artists that pursued different directions, interpretation and complexity in creating dance flows and forms in art, one notable artist without boundary was Robert Rauschenberg. A significant contributor to this genre was Robert Rauschenberg, whose multi-artistic direction, varying career paths and expansion into several disciplines show just how easily bridges and ties can be built between seemingly remote – but actually very similar – areas of life.

The American born Robert Rauschenberg viewed himself as unconventional in his approach to life and art.6  Already accomplished as an artist of the Neo-dada movement, which encapsulates audio, visual and literary forms, Robert Rauschenberg honed his artistic skills in numerous progressive creative endeavours.  He was a painter, sculptor, photographer, choreographer, stage and costume designer, and performance advisor.7   It took a number of years, participation and contributions from close friends and associates, to allow him to fully develop in a wide range of artistic areas and disciplines.

He pioneered a genre consisting of combining three disciplines, which gave him the freedom of complete expression through diverse channels.  Rauschenberg was the creator of the Combines a style described as a collage-type art, including, for example, everyday objects used in combination with non-traditional materials to create art.  Rauschenberg’s favourite combinations consisted of harmonizing paintings with objects or sculptures. He is well known for having designed sets for the stage, which served as a springboard for future projects and expansion. It is for these innovative contributions to these fields that he won the prestigious ‘National Medal of Arts’ in 1993 and the ‘Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts’ in 1995, including a front-page feature on the November 1976 issue of TIME magazine.8

Rauschenberg perceived that there were close ties between art and daily life and that the latter can be construed to be art in itself. For him, the two concepts were one and inseparable, and this was reflected in the pieces he produced, as well as his approach. Rauschenberg was quoted as saying that he wanted to be  ‘in the gap between life and art’.9  This philosophy is evident in the story of his travels to Morocco, where he and his partner Cy Twombly created art out of the household waste that was later exhibited and sold in galleries in Rome and Florence. That which did not sell was discarded into the Arno River. Through this project, he demonstrated that even mundane materials seen by most as useless, can in fact still be construed as meaningful art. Among his creations were representations of the political and social realities of his time.

Rauschenberg’s foray into the performing arts initially occurred at the famous Black Mountain College, where he met Merce Cunningham and John Cage.  Robert recognized that Cage and Cunningham’s concepts concerning theatre performance were akin to, and would enable, his ideals of art as unison with daily life.  The mingling of dance, music and art provided greater developmental opportunities of expression for Rauschenberg, endowing him with a chance to render his ideas on a greater scale, namely that of the stage.  Merce Cunningham founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and in 1954, Rauschenberg became Artistic Advisor to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with unlimited freedom of expression, along with the possibility to contribute in all aspects of the performances. John Cage, an American composer, was at the forefront of the avant-garde musical genre that presented indeterminacy, dissonance and unorthodoxy in music – some dubbed him the most influential composer of the 1900s. Similarly to Rauschenberg’s ideas, Cage asserted that his music was ‘an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living’.10

Early on Rauschenberg identified connections between stage performance – specifically contemporary dance – and art, recognizing a need for them to be combined to generate a truly complete art form.  The stage or performance medium coupled with a painting or artistic stage setting presents art as part of an all-encompassing performance concept – a living, dynamic canvas.  Merce Cunningham developed new forms of abstract dance, which fit very well with Rauschenberg’s artistic style.11   Rauschenberg used sets and choreography to create works of dance art and specifically playing on the mood and emotion of Cunningham’s choreography, to enrich and set the mood on stage and for the audience. Cunningham explained this combination by comparing it to the traditional approach:

"In most conventional dances there is a central idea to which everything adheres. The dance has been made to the piece of music, the music supports the dance, and the décor frames it. The central idea is emphasized by each of the several arts. What we have done in our work is to bring together three separate elements in time and space, the music, the dance, and the décor, allowing each one to remain independent."12

Cunningham inspired Rauschenberg and other contemporary artists with his unconventional methods of choreography.  He would even sometimes toss a coin to decide certain dance steps. Interestingly, Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg each worked independently to come to a singular conclusion focusing on the dance, mood and duration, in keeping with their focus on the elements being distinct despite being united in performance.13

In some instances and unexpectedly in the last minutes before a major performance, Cage, Cunningham and mostly Rauschenberg had to improvise the creation of a new dance costume design for the dancers to fit the mood and tone of the upcoming performance.14   In my view, a painter may at the last minute need to adapt and change in capturing the fleeting expression of pace, flow and step of the dancer onto the canvas.


The stage, setting, backdrop, costumes, music, performers and their personalities were Rauschenberg’s objects to manipulate and paint onto a live stage canvas; Cunningham Dance Company provided the moving figures, and Cage’s compositions would create the vibrations for the ever-changing live canvas, culminating in a harmonious unison. Also noteworthy was his attention to the visuals of contemporary dance, as well as the staging itself. Specifically, his emphasis on the way that dance was portrayed to the audience through the live performance and amalgamation of dancer against a painted stage setting.  He planned and directed the set lighting and how it would capture the images of the dancers against his backdrop.  The choreography and arrangement of the music complimented his art, broadening his role from set and costume designer to something akin to that of a total artistic director.

After extensive experience in developing his trade and ideas, Rauschenberg felt that he had the power to declare what is perceived to be art in life; he felt he could determine the meaning of art itself.  He was expanding the boundaries or more likely the definition of art and in do so, was able to create art in any form or shape and at any time.  

Rauschenberg realized that it is seemingly impossible to capture the cumulative effect of a series of movements due to the two-dimensional and static nature of visual art.  However, what art can capture in dance, that dance itself cannot, is to stop time in portraying, with still greater vividness than life itself, the emotional charge and aura of a single unrepeatable instant that would otherwise be lost to us, drawing the viewers’ attention to what the artist sees and wishes them to see.

Rauschenberg’s versatile view that live dance created a 3-dimensional effect against a colourful and multi-patterned stage setting, which in fact was his original backdrop painting.   He integrated similar colours in the dancers’ costumes matched with the stage backdrop creating a matching colour effect, which fascinates me.

In 1954, Rauschenberg in cooperation with Jasper Johns created the Minutiae stage set – Rauschenberg’s first freestanding combine - presented a striking red patterned with gold large-format backdrop that allowed the dancer to blend in to change the artwork with their movements (a living art).  The Minutiae would be used as the stage set for the dance production by the same name.  Of particular importance to the three artists was the way in which they collaborated for Minutiae; each produced the choreography, music and backdrops independently, preserving the individual identities of their respective disciplines, which would, however, when combined, create a greater and all-encompassing whole performance.

Merce Cunningham Dance Group and Stage setting by Robert Rauschenberg, Minutiae, 1958

The dance and stage setting, which inspires me, is a welcoming and safe space in which to experiment in this art, as well as being a place where one can rejoice, suffer, and become a wholly different person, away from the confines of the mundane. This magical sensation is brought to life in my painting Dance Studio through the passionate red hues, which are reflective of the inner feeling of fire within me, not only when dancing, but also in depicting dancing, two experiences which for me are almost inseparable. Dance, as with other art forms, is used to communicate certain feelings and ideas, usually of the dancer or choreographer, which they believe are best conveyed through specific movements and contortions of the body.  Dance, much like music, drama, or art, can be used to express that which in daily life would otherwise be inexpressible. Moreover, and also noteworthy, are equally heightened and almost otherworldly emotions which producing art can inspire.

It is no wonder, then, that so long as humans – the most advanced species we know of, and the only one with higher cognitive functions – have developed artistic expression beyond simple communication, for example through dance. The arts have and continue to be used to reach higher states of thought, living and feeling; through dance, my sense of self becomes inextricably linked to the movements of my body and to the music, which I not only interpret, but become in unisons with. It allows me to express emotions and states of mind which are often subconscious and inaccessible, and gives me the purpose, albeit temporary, of striving for something greater than myself, which is to humans incomprehensible and barely tangible– perhaps spiritual relief or pleasure – that can be achieved through dance only.

Claudia Kusznirczuk, Dance Studio, 2019

Dance Studio was developed within a dance studio while the background is a mixture of red, terracotta, and some royal blue reminiscent of Rauschenberg, and the circle of dancers inspired by Matisse’s Dance.  The dancers fade into the background requiring absolute viewer attention to discern the images of the dancers.  The painting captures the spontaneity of the pose reflecting the mood of the dancers during a practice dance session.  My artwork tries to capture the best efforts of each dancer attempting to perfect her posture within the symbolism of the eternal ring of life.   

In the 1958 production of Summerspace, Rauschenberg’s backdrop creates a unique scenery that is ever-changing with the dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance group accompanied by a creative piece of music by John Cage with gentle tones of bubbles rising in the water and the rumble of thunder filled bass to signify weather playing on time and space.15

Summerspace, Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Robert Rauschenberg costume and stage design, 1958

All three artists thought about the use of space, creating a stage without a central point, a very non- standard setting. There is no perception of time or place; the focus is entirely on the stage setting, dance and music. This contributes to a state of greater awareness of the three elements, one or more of which are often overpowered by one another (or a plot) in more conventional performances. Without the restrictions of traditional storytelling, the performance can be conducive to an almost meditative state. In this way, dance can also be soothing and performed with mindfulness, seemingly breaking spatial boundaries and bursting into a higher plane of being with the aid of art.


This ideal is seen in my painting A Star Must Fall, wherein specks of colour amid an indeterminate background evoke a sense of an apocalyptic, universal reality, that cannot be described by science or language – only, in my opinion, through the cathartic experiences of dance, music, and art. The choreography shown on the painting is based on both classical ballet and contemporary dance.

Claudia Kusznirczuk, A Star Must Fall, 2019

In the above painting, A Star Must Fall the background interpretation comes in part from Rauschenberg’s Summerspace stage setting.  The painting moves from the realistic to abstract as in time with the dancer's postures and poses.

Matisse moved from classical art to the development of an identifiable style unique to him.  He understood that art was not simply the repetition of surroundings, persons or objects, but the presentation of a new visual concept or style that would immortalize him to present and future generations. He in fact through his visual display placed a unique fingerprint on his output for the world to easily recognize his work.  Rauschenberg immediately understood that in order to stand out as an artist he had to not only generate a unique form of art, but also to join external forms of disciplines, and combine a number of artistic elements to form a complete picture.

Both artists used dance as the central subject of many of their works but took its meaning and form in very different directions. Matisse and Rauschenberg had in common the fact that they pushed their creations into the radical non-conformist territory. In my view, creations need to present expressions of impressionable creativity and dynamic dance, as Matisse and Rauschenberg expressed in their ever-interpretative ultra-progressive works for their times.

In summary, inspirational are the stage settings of limited palette colourations developed and painted by Rauschenberg and from the spontaneity and the simple native dance in the sense of unity in colour and form from Matisse. Art has gone from the classic realistic movements to the highly abstract renditions of the present era progressing towards yet to be uncovered styles in the future waiting to be discovered and conveyed onto the canvas.   At present and continuing into the future, dance tells a story for all ages expressing feelings and emotions onto the viewers – the art of dance onto the painted art - as should a good piece of artwork.  Humanity and specifically artists will always have an internal desire, such as my internal passion, to view and participate in dance and to portray dance in painted form.   My work utilizes the foundations and aggregates the message of all previous dance-focused artists that have and will continue to guide me towards progressively new dance interpretations.



  1., Henri Matisse – Biography and Legacy French Painter, Draftsman, and Collagist

  2. Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow, Matisse In Search of True Painting, Yale University Press, London, page 4

  3. Markus Mueller, Henri Matisse, Hirmer, 2017

  4. Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow, Matisse In Search of True Painting, Yale University Press, London


  6. Leah Dickerman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2016, Foreword, page 8

  7. Robert Rauschenberg 1925-2008, and Robert Rauschenberg,  

  8. Leah Dickerman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2016

  9. Leah Dickerman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2016

  10. Susan Sontag, Dancers on the Plane, Cage – Cunningham – Johns, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1989.

  11. Robert Lewis, Merce Cunningham American Dancer and Choreographer, April 12, 2019, The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

  12. Merce Cunningham in conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, Marion Boyars New York-London, 1985

  13. Richard Kostelanetz, Dancing in Space and Time, Merce Cunningham, Dance Books London, 1992

  14. Leah Dickerman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2016

  15. , Summerspace, 2010





Markus Mueller, Henri Matisse, Hirmer, 2017

Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow, Matisse In Search of True Painting, Yale University Press, London

Leah Dickerman, Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2016

Richard Kostelanetz, Dancing in Space and Time, Merce Cunningham, Dance Books London, 1992

Susan Sontag, Dancers on the Plane, Cage – Cunningham – Johns, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1989

Merce Cunningham in conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, Marion Boyars New York-London, 1985.

General References:


•    Robert Rauschenberg | American artist |,

•    Robert Rauschenberg American Collagist, Painter, and Graphic Artist,

•    Rauschenberg,

•,  7 The New York Times, Design meets Dance, and Rules are Broken, Alistair Macaulay, June 17, 2007.



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