Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement
Royal Academy of Arts, London
September 17 – December 11th
Curated by Richard Kendall, Curator at Large, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA; Jill DeVonyar, independent curator; and Ann Dumas, Exhibition Curator, Royal Academy of Arts
Can anything new be said about Degas and the dance? Those beautiful pastels and oils of rehearsal studios, those figures framed by stage flats, the three-dimensional sculptures have all passed into the canon of art history, and they are as inseparably linked to Edgar Degas as are the subtexts of voyeurism and misogyny. But the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, aims for something new as its subtitle suggests. Of course, there is plenty to delight the eye with a spread of some eighty-five works by one of the most idiosyncratic of Impressionist artists, and the range of major loans—especially from private collections—is staggering as is the quality of the selection. This bounty is not surprising, given that Richard Kendall, probably the doyen of Degas specialists, is the chief curator; yet what makes this exhibition stand out among the generality of shows on Degas is that it contrives to mount two exhibitions at once: one on the artist’s obsession with the ballet and ballerinas, the other about the nineteenth-century’s obsession with deciphering locomotion.
The two themes crisscross and run parallel through the stately galleries of the Royal Academy, which are large enough to accommodate crowds without completely undermining the intimacy of most of the works displayed. The effect is aided by the low level of lighting required for drawings and pastels, which create a penumbra-like effect in most of the rooms. The main challenge faced by the organizers was how to break down a seemingly restricted theme, but it has been credibly met by topics that move chronologically across the painter’s career while focusing on issues such as mobile viewing, Degas as a photographer, or color and dynamism. Degas and the Ballet establishes connections between the newly established medium of photography and the painter’s oeuvre: one of his early paintings of dancers was tellingly characterized by a critic as “a photograph;” the innovative photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s were known to Degas; and he himself became an enthusiastic photographer in the last decade of his career. While the extent to which scientific studies of movement played a role in Degas’s art may be moot, the exhibition does make a strongly convincing case that the photography of animal locomotion was not only “in the air,” but also a central preoccupation of many artists and theoreticians.
Among Degas’s first paintings to gain attention were ones dealing with the ballet. Two early works from the 1870s, both called The Rehearsal, one from the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., the other from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow (fig.1), display the painter’s interests in the genre as already fully formed: haphazard cropping and unconventional perspectives convey a slice of life off stage, with dancers engaging in practice, fiddling with their ballet slippers, or merely resting in a chair. The glimpse of a spiral staircase with a dancer’s legs descending it in the Burrell Collection’s painting recalls a memorandum Degas made some years earlier: “For a studio project, set up tiers around the room in order to get accustomed to drawing things from below and above…going up and down…Make a series of arm movements of the dance, or of legs that don’t move, turning around them oneself…study from all perspectives, a figure or an object, it doesn’t matter which.” This may have been prompted by his study of Japanese woodcuts rather than photography, but the impact of these works appears to owe more to Degas’s preternatural sensitivity to light sources that illuminate a scene indirectly. Especially in the Fogg canvas, French windows with glimpses of green foliage beyond intermittently light a gray practice room while in the Burrell, the dancers’ shadows create patterns on the scuffed floor.
Even more remarkable is an 1876 painting of the ballet scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (fig. 2), in which the ghostly dance of dead nuns on the stage is glimpsed over the heads of members of the orchestra. Photography is introduced into the mix here through a series of carte de visite photographs of ballerinas en pointe as well as some of rats, the students at the Opéra Ballet School.
These are paired with sketches by Degas in pastel and gouache as well as the remarkable Dancer Posing for a Photograph (1875, fig. 3) from the Pushkin, in which the figure’s silhouette is glimpsed against a moonlit view of the roofs of Paris.
The most creative section of the exhibition comes in the third gallery, devoted to Degas’s controversial sculpture of The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (fig. 4). It was the only sculpture the artist ever exhibited and provoked a decidedly mixed reception at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881. An actual portrait of the young Marie van Goethem, the work’s hostile reception was due in no small part to what the author Joris-Karl Huysmans called its “terrible reality” as it was composed of wax, real clothing, and a wig. (Click here to see the original.) Its fetishistic presence and unorthodox media would have had a shock impact upon the contemporary public but should be understood in the context of the trend among artists of the period—Daumier, Gauguin, and Carriès come to mind— to explore a variety of new materials in fashioning sculpture. This effect is not really conveyed by the bronze version on view here from the Tate Gallery’s collection, but its presence is almost beside the point. What Richard Kendall is primarily concerned with is the way in which Degas set about capturing the figure of the young girl through a series of drawings. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum, the Morgan Library, the National Gallery of Oslo among others, the drawings demonstrate how the artist followed his earlier injunction to circle round the figure, seeing her from all angles, thereby assembling a composite image from a variety of standpoints. The point is underscored by a clever use of digital animation, tracing the movement round the motionless ballerina through Degas’s sketches. Degas’s unusual working method is then compared with the slightly earlier craze for “photosculpture,” a process invented by François Willème in which a circle of cameras simultaneously captures views of a subject posed at a central spot. The resulting images were transferred to a block of clay by a mechanism called a pantograph, thus achieving a three-dimensional likeness. A few examples of this kind of sculpture are displayed here, but the results of the process now seem little more than a curiosity, underscoring the difference between a static image and Degas’s more vigorous manipulation of wax to achieve “movement in its exact truth.”
At this point, the photographic component of the exhibition gains the upper hand as we are treated to an extensive sequence of developments in the medium that occurred between the 1860s and the 1890s, beginning with a section called the “panoramic gaze.” This refers to the invention of the pantoscopic panoramic camera, which produced wide-angle views of landscapes and cities. Invented in 1862, this camera employed a clockwork device to cover a field of 110 degrees on a prepared glass plate. Several panoramic photographs are on display, and they are fascinating documents of Paris in Degas’s lifetime. Almost inevitably, they are compared with a series of similarly narrow, horizontal views of studio interiors that Degas made across his career. The comparison is suggestive, if strained, because the painted studies foreground the dancers as if in close-ups and are not really panoramas. They also deliberately eschew the kind of clarity found in glass-plate photography. Instead, the reality here often has to be teased out of the painter’s brushwork. For example, Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass from the Metropolitan Museum (1882-85) has as its centerpiece the seated figure of a dancer, bending over to adjust the straps on her slipper. One has to deconstruct the movement, which seems to unfold like the petals of a flower; this is representative of Degas’s working method, in which the strength of the composition derives from the tension between applied patches of color that militate against any suggestion of depth.
Similarly, in the Dance Lesson from the National Gallery in Washington (fig. 5), the narrative of the studio is undermined by a large splash of orange on the seated figure at the extreme left; only on closer inspection does this turn out to be a shawl.
Looking back on his career towards the end of his life, Degas said that “depicting movement” was the true object of his pastels and paintings of ballet. This quest for movement is put into the context of scientific studies of Muybridge and Marey, both active in the 1880s and publishing in journals of which Degas was aware. This is one of the most fascinating sequences in the whole exhibition because it plays the work of these two photographic pioneers in the context of capturing movement in art, and their impact on late nineteenth-century audiences is conveyed through computer animation of Muybridge’s “First Ballet Position” or Marey’s photographs of a woman recreating Greek dance from ancient monuments.
Here there is a tantalizing parallel with a slightly earlier pastel by the artist called La Danse Grecque (fig. 6). By the same token, Degas’s quest for “movement in its exact truth” is compared with the work of Paul Richel, professor of anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, whose sculptures look like painstaking transcriptions of Muybridge’s photography. Although the exhibition makes a convincing case for these topics being “in the air,” exact correspondences with Degas’s work remain vague. The introduction of Degas’s drawings and sculptures of the dance offer a pertinent counterpoint here as they often demonstrate a concern with sequential movement, whether it is a pas de bourée or the plié in second position. Yet it must be said that his sculptures retain a sketchy quality not found among contemporary academic work by the likes of Richel.
Degas and the Ballet continues towards the end of his active career by examining the artist as a photographer as well as late interests like Russian dancers. There are juxtapositions of famous snapshots of a dancer adjusting a shoulder strap or the back of a woman drying herself, both of which figure in Degas’s painted work, but in each case the painted version transforms these mundane images into something more mysterious and pregnant with meaning.
Fig. 7, Peter Elfelt, The Tarantella from Napoli, 1903, Danish Film Institute from Laboratory Media on Vimeo.
The introduction of motion pictures from the mid-1890s presents a new point of contact with Degas’s passion for the dance, and clips of a Neapolitan tarantella (fig. 7) or Russian dancers evoke the theater as Degas knew it. What stands out in the later galleries as in the exhibition as a whole is the artist’s use of line and highly saturated color to evoke atmosphere even more than movement (fig. 8). Degas and the Ballet has enriched our knowledge of the study of movement that informed the artist’s world, and whether or not it makes a conclusive case for the impact of photography on his vision seems almost beside the point. After surveying such a rich exhibition, it is sobering to realize that this was only a part of Degas’s wide range of interests. Above all, it is his wonderful and quite distinctive palette of orange, azure, chestnut brown and turquoise that remain in the mind, testifying to a vision which found its stride early on and only got better with time.