Monday, 26 September 2011

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, The Royal Academy, London, United Kingdom, by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, The Royal Academy, London, United Kingdom, by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

The Royal Academy in London is hosting an amazing exhibition on the Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. Born in the late 1880’s Degas was fascinated and obsessed with the world of ballet for over four decades. Almost two thirds of his artistic output was devoted to ballet in some way and his talent and attention to detail were legendary. The focus of this exhibition is on Degas and the notion of movement and stillness in his painting in conjunction with his technical and conceptual skills. It also explores the other mediums that were beginning to emerge during the century such as photography and film and its relation to his painting. In this context we learn how skilfully Degas pushes the boundaries of art and his ability to co-habit two worlds simultaneously: that of art and the world of images. Like his contemporary artists Degas’ focus was on modern life rather than the ancient, classical world of the heroic.

Born into a cultured Parisian family Degas soon immersed himself in art and strove for a kind of vivid realism that was unparalleled. His study of ballerinas was constant and obsessive and he managed to gain backstage access to the dancers at the Opera and inside their practice rooms. He revelled in his ability to suggest plausible movement on stage. In the oil painting “Robert le Diable”, dated 1876, Degas depicts an unusual scene from a play in which dead nuns have arisen from the grave and are dancing with devils. The viewpoint is as if we are sitting in the stalls with the real theatre audience and to this end Degas skilfully incorporates the viewer into the painting. The exhibition portrays that Degas’ ability to blend the dancers’ swirls is a triumph and a skill that the camera simply wouldn’t be able to achieve.

One of my favourite paintings in the exhibition is “2 Dancers on the stage” in which Degas has painted two ballerinas in an apartment with the backdrop of Paris behind them. The scene is both immensely poetic yet also realistic because of its setting; the colours are both fluid and vague. Degas made hundreds of sketches, in pastel and chalk, in preparation for his paintings and many of these are showcased. One sketch which I found particularly skilful is ‘Study of legs’, dated 1873, in black chalk. The detail attests to his draughtsmanship and you get the real sense of a work in progress. Degas would draw and redraw until he got the picture right with a passion and zeal that was to fuel his work. He repeatedly drew the dancers from a different view and angle as if he was circling around them. One of the highlights for me is his pastel and charcoal sketch, entitled “Dancer, Study for L’Attente, dated 1882; a beautiful rendering of a ballerina leaning on bent knee, head down, featuring the the braids in her hair in incredible yet fluid detail. Degas’ style is astonishingly beautiful and poetic yet at the same time staying true to the Impressionist creed of portraying the human body as it is. In ‘The Rehearsal’ we see a group of dancers rehearsing to the accompaniment of a violin. They are in battement 2nd position and Degas skilfully ‘freezes’ the movement of their dance. His many sketches featuring multiple lines that captured movement and his attention to lines and form was at the heart of everything he did. It is no surprise then that when the first camera appeared in 1895 he was an ardent enthusiast. Degas liked to paint dancers because it recalled the movement of the Greeks and there is definitely a sense of the sublime in his work.

The exhibition also showcases many of Degas’ beautiful and delicate bronze sculptures. ’The Little Dancer Aged 14 was one of the largest sculptures he made and interestingly was the only one of his sculptures that was displayed to the public. In the 1870’s he made a series of wide narrow canvases that depicted classrooms; it was an inventive approach to representing modern individuals at work. Here we see he might have been inspired by the special cameras used at the time that recorded paranomic scenes. He returned again and again to the same format whilst his paintings gradually got wider, the colours richer and the brushwork more vigorous.

In later years we see how his painting became more muscular, shown for example in ‘After the Bath, Woman drying her back’, dated 1896. As he got older he would paint from memory and his dynamic strokes of pastel would bring his dance figures to life; as effectively as modern photography could. His beautiful painting ‘Dancers in Blue’ is definitely my favourite oil painting of the exhibition. We see four ballet dancers, in blue dresses, resting back stage. The intimacy between the dancers is palpable and we as an audience are invited to share this private moment between the ballerinas. The orange in the background of the painting implies movement as one’s eye zigzags from the restful blue to the more active orange. Each dancer is gracefully and poetically portrayed.

It is hard not to marvel at the sculptures, drawings and paintings that are portrayed in the exhibition. It is a show that should not be missed and attests to Degas immense and broad talent as a draughtsman, sculptor and artist.

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, The Royal Academy, London, United Kingdom, by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

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