In February 1874, the French writer Edmond de Goncourt visited “a strange painter called Degas” in his studio. It proved a memorable occasion. Degas performed a kind of jig — a “choreographic sequence”, as Goncourt put it in his journal, based on the movements of ballerinas. The whole incident was “very amusing”, as Goncourt watched Degas “high on his points, his arms rounded, mixing the aesthetics of a dance master with those of a painter”.
The anecdote is striking — especially since Degas’s budding fascination with dance turned into a lifelong obsession. Certain artists will be associated forever with particular motifs: Monet and water lilies, for instance, or Stubbs and horses. Degas will always be remembered first and foremost as the painter of dancers. From the 1870s, he haunted the Paris Opéra, home of the national ballet company, studying performances, and scrutinising the dancers’ rehearsals, warm-up exercises and gossipy antics backstage.
He sketched everything, and fashioned beautiful paintings from his meticulous observations. Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy, tells this story, chronicling the artist’s attempts to draw the undrawable, and capture dance’s whirling yet transient energy.
Today it is tempting to write off Degas’s pictures of ballerinas as overly pretty and effeminate — flickering visions of beribboned nymphets in tutus pirouetting across the stage. But nothing could be further from the reality of his robust and vigorous studies of athletes sweating and straining their sinews. His ballerinas aren’t simpering, insipid creatures of fantasy, but flesh-and-blood young women whose “distorted” anatomies shocked early critics.
Degas’s longstanding passion for depicting ballerinas is perhaps best understood as an idiosyncratic take on Impressionism. The Impressionists were painters of modern life, recording the hustle and bustle in the bars and boulevards of Paris. The dancers of the Paris Opéra, many of whom came from an impoverished background and had a reputation for loose morals, belong to the large cast of “modern” characters found in Impressionist art.
Take Degas’s famous sculpture, the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, originally modelled in wax, to which the artist added a wig of real hair tied with a ribbon, as well as a linen bodice, muslin tutu, and satin shoes. (The RA shows the version in the Tate, cast in bronze after the artist’s death; the original wax is preserved in Washington.) The sculpture, a portrait of a young dancer called Marie van Goethem, scandalised visitors when it was shown at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, because it was so realistic. One writer castigated it as a “rat from the opera learning her craft with all of her evil instincts and vicious inclinations” — and Degas’s creation retains a street-smart pluckiness today. In her bedraggled muslin, she looks more scamp than prima ballerina.
More important, perhaps, Degas depicted dancers because he wanted to fix the momentary, and imbue pieces of paper and canvas with the animation and vitality of the human figure in motion — a challenge analogous to the efforts of other Impressionists to transcribe ephemeral effects of atmosphere and light. “They call me the painter of dancers,” he told the art dealer Ambroise Vollard in old age. “They don’t understand that for me the dancer was a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and rendering movement.”
Degas’s quest to “render movement” takes centre-stage at the RA, which presents many scintillating studies in a variety of media, including charcoal, chalk, pencil and pastel, as well as a number of impressive oil paintings. Degas was already known in his lifetime as a virtuoso draughtsman, and watching him describe the trajectory of a limb in fluttering motion is compelling. He must, surely, have sketched from life, either backstage at the Paris Opéra, or in his studio in Montmartre. Often he tentatively traces the contour of an airborne limb several times, before deciding on the best line, and articulating it more heavily.
Rather than erase his initial impressions, though, he left them intact — and these ghostly echoes offer a brilliant approximation of movement. Again and again I was struck by how Degas’s technique anticipated some of the discoveries of the Cubists, who tried to present their subjects from every angle at the same time. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2, for instance, could be seen as a mechanised extrapolation of Degas’s serial studies of women in motion.
As well as this central narrative, though, Degas and the Ballet presents a history of early photography and film, in order to contextualise the artist’s pictures of dancers — effectively shoehorning two exhibitions into one. The curators, Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar, ingeniously suggest how developments in both media goaded and inspired Degas to ever more audacious visual experiments.
To begin with, Degas seems to have scorned photography, which Baudelaire described as “art’s most mortal enemy”. Early publicity shots of ballerinas, while sought-after among the bourgeoisie, were artificial affairs. Degas, by contrast, relished dynamic compositions that no photographer could ever hope to emulate. He bathed his scenes in the awkward artificial half-light of evening performances, and articulated the momentary extension of limbs in poses that couldn’t possibly have been held for more than a second.
Later, though, photography seems to have spurred Degas on to greater innovation. (He even acquired his own camera in 1895.) The curators suggest that popular panoramic vistas of Paris may have inspired his series of frieze-like paintings of ballet rehearsals, for instance. He was acquainted, too, with the work of the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey and the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who both used photography to pioneer research into the movement of humans and animals — “freezing” minute actions, much as Degas did.
These contextual connections are always intelligent and imaginative, even if sometimes they appear a little fanciful. I disagreed with a few of the claims, including the curators’ suggestion that a Group of Dancers in charcoal and pastel from circa 1900 belongs to the age of Matisse’s animated La Danse of 1909 (the primitive frenzy of the latter is infinitely more pronounced).
But over-enthusiasm is infectious, and Degas and the Ballet draws upon a deep well of creative scholarship, as well as curatorial flair. The visual rhyme in the central gallery between Marey’s bronze models, which accurately depict the flight of pigeons and gulls, and Degas’s sculptures of women performing arabesques, is wonderful — even if it suggests little more than the fact that an interest in the mechanics of motion was in the ether during the closing decades of the 19th century.
Summoning the zeitgeist behind great art, though, is a good and illuminating thing — and that is what this beautiful and substantial exhibition at the Royal Academy does in spades. Moreover, in the final galleries, we watch Degas the draughtsman turn into a complex colourist, despite failing eyesight — a transformation that is both gorgeous and heroic.
Source: The Telegraph