Frances Archipenko Gray has confirmed the authenticity of this sculpture.
There is surely no other sculpture in Archipenko's oeuvre of nearly six decades that surpasses or even matches the sheer exuberance and sense of abandon with which he invested Blue Dancer, a female figure he conceived in 1913 and continued to work on for the next five years. One may contemplate Blue Dancer as an occidental version of the Indian Shiva Nataraja, the god Shiva as the Lord of Dance, lacking only the latter's extra pair of arms and the surrounding aureole of fire (fig. 1), although it may or may not be coincidental that Shiva, like other Hindu deities, is sometimes depicted with a blue complexion. Shiva performs his cosmic dance to mark the passing of a declining, outworn world, in anticipation that the great god Brahma will soon start anew the process of creation. While the pose of Archipenko's Blue Dancer may suggest aspects of the dance hall and the ballet theater, it is not derived directly from either quarter--Blue Dancer is the very essence of dance, in all its forms, and she embodies the irrepressible celebratory nature of human spirit. She is also a profoundly female power, here engaged--as if a Maenad utterly possessed--in a Dionysian rite that will end in exhaustion and oblivion, but bringing with it a cathartic release of transforming energy and joy.
When Archipenko left his native Ukraine in 1908 and made his way to Paris, he had arrived in the very heart of the art world, but also in the international capital of dance. In the Ukraine he had witnessed the robust, gravity-defying dances of the steppe folk, as well as the boisterous swagger of Cossack revels, and now in Paris there was dance to be seen everywhere, of all kinds, from the racy can-can, the popular polkas, quadrilles and the latest fads in the dance halls, the innovative and daringly modern free form performances of the American dancers Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan, to the disciplined and formal elegance of the Paris ballet theater. The spheres of dance, music, entertainment and art, all displaying the very latest in style and fashion, were closely intertwined, and each stimulated and enriched the rest as nowhere else in the world. Toulouse-Lautrec made the dance halls of Montmartre his beat, and in his younger years old Degas had been a keen observer in the backstage practice rooms of the corps du ballet at the Paris Opéra. Rodin drew the graceful, ritualistic gestures of Cambodian dancers in 1906, and modeled a late series of dance movements, purportedly based on the high kicks of the popular chahut. Matisse made the dance a central element in his modernist vision of Arcadia, beginning with Le bonheur de vivre, 1906, and continuing with La Danse (II), 1909-1910, which he painted for the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin.
Just as Archipenko was getting settled in Paris, Russian art, theater, opera and music had become a leading attraction in the capital, through the Saisons organized by the group Mir Isskustra, "The World of Art," headed by the artist Alexander Benois and managed by the rising impresario Serge Diaghilev. In 1909 the group's exotic productions and performances of new and classic ballets began to overshadow the rest of their efforts, and they became known to the public as the Ballets Russes. Igor Stravinsky's first ballet The Firebird premiered in 1910, his Petrushka in 1911, and in 1913 The Rite of Spring caused a riot at its first performance--the experience of pounding music of a kind never heard before and a deliberately primitivist choreography was far more than many with conventional tastes could bear. Russian art, music and dance had converged to become the must-see and most talked about events in the cultural life of Paris.
With Salomé (1910) and Dancer (Negro Dancer; 1911), Archipenko had already treated the dance in his work, but his involvement with this subject took on new intensity in 1912, when he commenced what became a trilogy of figures engaged in what might be termed "extreme" dance movement, in which he depicted contorted, leanly modeled and elongated figures, arranged in postures that could exist only in his imagination. The first work in this series is Red Dance, a female nude he had painted red and attached to a blue background, recalling Matisse's La Danse (II). Long believed to have been lost, Red Dance is today known only from a photograph (fig. 2). The second sculpture, The Dance, 1912-1913, is well known (fig. 3); it also belongs to a group of sculptures in which Archipenko explored the possibilities of interaction between two figures (another is The Kiss, 1912); here he demonstrated his idea that "sculpture may begin where space is encircled by the material" (quoted in A.E. Elsen, Origins of Modern Sculpture, New York, 1974, p. 98).
This group of dance subjects culminated in Blue Dancer, in which Archipenko returned to the single figure format of Red Dance. This time he held in check the gothic severity of constructive design that characterizes the earlier two sculptures, and he also played down their rather solemn and portentous demeanor. He gave the girl who is the Blue Dancer a very appealing figure, still pared down like that of an athlete but more shapely than previously. He also eased up on his tendency to create compactly tensioned forms and allowed her to show off an unrestrained, uninhibited character, making this dancer the most lively and extrovert of the series. Archipenko painted the original plaster version of Blue Dancer blue and red (today located in the Saarlandmuseum, Saarbrücken); the sculpture probably acquired its present title in order to distinguish it from Red Dance (now lost).
Blue Dancer displays a buoyant and nimble lyricism, even if in this pose the configuration of her limbs is nearly over-the-top in its complexity, composed as they are of zigzagging angles, with limbs that run parallel to or mirror other parts of her body, and at the same time act in opposition to lines elsewhere, creating a very elaborate counterpoint of formal elements. The angularity of her limbs, far removed from anything relating to academic tradition, reveals the sculptor's interest in the cubist paintings of his friends. Discarding all concessions to naturalism and disregarding the very plausibility of actually holding such a position, Archipenko choreographed this pose for its striking and emphatic effect. Perhaps he knew of Leon Bakst's costume designs for The Firebird, especially one sheet showing a costume for the dancer Karsavina seen in an extremely angular pose. Bakst also provided designs for Michel Fokine's ballet Le Dieu bleu, produced in 1912, based on Hindu mythology (fig. 4), which Archipenko may have known, and perhaps suggested the blue coloring for the plaster version of the present sculpture.
Yet amid the profusion of excited, theatrical gestures in the posture of Blue Dancer, the eye quickly detects a carefully aligned vertical axis in her pose, a virtual plumb line that runs from the tips of the fingers on her raised hand and arm, down to the point of her foot on the base. Around this center line the various elements in the composition of the dancer's figure appear to revolve; there is nonetheless a miraculous balance of opposing forces, a tenuous but nigh perfect equilibrium, even while the complex interaction of the parts--the dancer's bent torso, her limbs and extremities--continue to intrigue and tantalize the eye. In addition to carefully devising the structure of the dancer's body, Archipenko also makes a point of exploiting open forms within and around the figure, as delineated by her bent arms and right leg--he has, in effect, sculpted in nearly equal measure both the volume and actual mass of the figure, together with the space in which it exists. Jaroslaw Leshko, curator of the 2005 Archipenko retrospective at the Ukrainian Museum in New York, has observed:
"When Archipenko revisited the topic of dance in his Blue Dancer, his focus had shifted from the dynamism of earlier interpretations to a concern with pose and balance. In the work, the figure is restored to whole, and its stylized anatomical features are less distorted and more succinctly articulated, as in the upwardly tilted head... In Red Dance (fig. 2), the dancer's dynamic sweep is so alluring in its energetic expression that balance is a momentary and secondary issue. In Blue Dancer, the focus on the precariousness of the balancing act serves as a compelling interpretation of the essence of dance" (Alexander Archipenko: Vision and Continuity, exh. cat., The Ukrainian Museum, New York, 2005, p. 42).
Alexander Archipenko in his Paris studio, 1913.
(fig. 1) Shiva Nataraja, India, Chola period, late 12th -early 13th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 2) Alexander Archipenko, Red Dance, 1912-1913. Presumed lost. Photograph, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 3) Alexander Archipenko, The Dance, 1912-1913. Private collection.
(fig. 4) Leon Bakst, Costume Design for the Ballet 'Le Dieu bleu': Nijinksy, 1911. Private collection.