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Carpeaux, Dance

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux​, Dance, 1865-69, marble, 420 x 298 cm. (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Commissioned by Charles Garnier for the facade of L'Opéra. In 1964 it was replaced by a copy executed by Paul Belmondo. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're at the Musee d'Orsay and we're looking at Carpeaux's The Dance, which had been commissioned in 1865 by Garnier for the exterior of the new opera house that was being built under Napoleon the Third. This is the moment when Paris is being reborn as the modern city that we now know it as. Dr. Harris: There's no way no to feel thrilled when looking at this sculpture. It just expresses such joyousness and pleasure. Dr. Zucker: Exuberance. Dr. Harris: Yeah, representing dance, but there's none of that sense of discipline and rigor that one would think about with classical ballet, which was what was being performed inside of the opera house. Dr. Zucker: It's almost out of control. Dr. Harris: We have this figure that represents dance that's wildly flinging his hands and arms up with a tambourine in his right hand, the genie, the allegorical figure representing dance and these five nymphs dancing in a circle around him, breaking out of the space of the sculpture in a way that I think of as very baroque in its occupation and utilization of space. Dr. Zucker: Maybe because it was baroque and it was not neoclassical, this sculpture actually received a lot of negative criticism. It was part of the naturalism and the honesty of the body and its pleasure, but also the way that it broke beyond the bounds of the space that it should be defining. Dr. Harris: You can see how it didn't look like an idealized neoclassical sculpture. The figures are grinning. There's just an emotional quality here that you don't get in neoclassical sculpture. Dr. Zucker: It's really erupting. Dr. Harris: If you look at them having such fun and their hair flying back. There's a real sense of wind and atmosphere and movement, even the way the genie of dance has wings and drapery flutter back, but this amazingly complex composition that he makes look really simple, I think. Dr. Zucker: You mentioned before that the nymphs, that these women are circling the genie and we certainly see it as a circle, but they're also brought forward, so it's not really a circle and what Carpeaux's able to do is achieve two things simultaneously. He's able to create that ring around the genie and we really do get that sense, but the same time, there's this wonderful kind of intimacy between the figures and this kind of pleasure of their bodies together and that's the collapsing of that circle. Dr. Harris: We have a figure springing forward vertically and then from the base of the sculpture, two figures that fan out diagonally. It's incredibly unstable, it comes down on that upside down pyramid. Dr. Zucker: There is a really delicate balance. The centrifugal force of the figures is in danger of throwing them outward towards us, but their hands are clasped, maybe just enough - Dr. Harris: To hold it in. Dr. Zucker: Right, so we're seeing this as an exuberant expression of pleasure and energy and the creative, the dance, but when the sculpture was first put on the building, people were upset. In fact, so upset, that somebody actually threw a bottle of ink at it. The sculpture has long since been cleaned and it was brought inside in 1964. Dr. Harris: To protect it from the elements. Dr. Zucker: That's right, because of course, the air pollution and the acids in the atmosphere were starting to wash away the sculpture and started to really dull its lines. You can sort of see, especially on the left side, some of the real damage to the sculpture, but it still retains all of its energy, all of its beauty, and all of its playfulness. (jazz music)