On the night of Aug. 26 to 27, 1869, an enraged prude hurled an inkpot at “La Danse,” Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s group of nude dancers on the facade of the Paris Opera.
It was the climax of a noisy campaign against the excesses of modern art. Only the war of 1870-71 and the demise of the Second Empire saved the sculpture from being replaced with one that was more chaste.
There was worse to come.
A photograph, dated 1914, on display in a new exhibition, “Danser Sa Vie,” at the Centre Pompidou shows three naked dancers with the caption: “We were young. And those carefree summer weeks, together with the sun-drenched beauty of the landscape, set our limbs free and threw open the spiritual gates of our vivacity.”
The words are from Mary Wigman, who invented what Germans call Ausdruckstanz, or expressive dance. The location is the Monte Verita near Ascona in Switzerland, a meeting place for anarchists, vegetarians, nudists and artists. In the 1920s, it was the favorite holiday destination of the Bauhaus staff.
The 450 items -- paintings, photographs, films, documents and books -- seek to illustrate the dialogue between modern dance and the visual arts in the 20th century.
They are grouped along three thematic axes: dance as self expression; the relationship between dance and abstraction; and performance art, and mixing theater, music and visual arts.
The first section is dominated by German choreographers and dancers from Rudolf von Laban’s revolutionary summer courses in Ascona to Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater in Wuppertal. They appear side by side with paintings by Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other Expressionists.
Also here are Vaslav Nijinsky, the Ukrainian dancer whose lascivious contortions in Debussy’s “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” caused a “succes de scandale,” as well as San Francisco-born Isadora Duncan who performed barefoot and shocked audiences by dancing, clad in scarlet, the socialist anthem L’Internationale.
The second part of the show includes Loie Fuller, Oskar Schlemmer and Alwin Nikolais. Dressed in yards of diaphanous silk and bathed in the glow of multicolored lights of her own design, Fuller, a regular performer at the Folies Bergere, seems suspended in space.
Schlemmer, who taught at the Bauhaus in the sculpture and stage-design workshops, choreographed a Triadic Ballet, to music by Paul Hindemith, in which the dancers appeared as marionettes in geometric costumes.
Similarly, Nikolais invented a sort of total theater in which dancers, props, lights and sounds were equally important parts of a sculptural Gesamtkunstwerk.
Performance art already started with the Dadaists, who staged provocative events to promote their work.
In 1959, Allan Kaprow coined the term “Happening” for an art form that rejected the traditional principles of craftsmanship and permanence. Other people say that the first Happening was organized in 1952 by John Cage at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Kaprow, Cage and his lifetime partner Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Trisha Brown and Anna Halprin’s nude “Paper Dance” figure in the last section of the show.
Even Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting is presented as a form of dance. Conversely, disco and go-go dancing are hailed as new art forms, “the alchemy of bodies in electronic ecstasy,” according to the catalog.
That notion is disputable. Yet there’s no doubt that the Pompidou Center has hit on a thought provoking, amusing topic.
“Danser Sa Vie -- Art et Danse de 1900 a Nos Jours,” which is supported by Longchamp, runs through April 2, 2012. Information: http://www.centrepompidou.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)