Degas and the Ballet show fascinates with history of moving image at Royal Academy

By Mark Sheerin | 13 September 2011
Pastel painting of a dance studio with dancers rehearsing
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (circa 1874). Oil on canvas. Lent by Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Gifted by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944© Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)
Exhibition: Degas and the Ballet – Picturing Movement, Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 17 - December 11 2011

Blink and you might miss it could have been another subtitle for this show. Owing to the delicacy of pastel works on paper, it will not tour after its three-month run. So this is a rare opportunity to see a representative sweep of work by the Painter of Dancers.

It also concerns the fleeting aspects of movement which the human eye had never before caught. From his vantage point in the late 19th century, Edgar Degas was keeping pace with the revelatory developments in photography. He perhaps lost a race with early film.

Lens-based media are at least as important to this show as tutus and pas des deux. Degas copies photos, lampoons film, acquires a camera and, in what looks like a cocky moment of jest, paints a work entitled Dancer Posing for a Photograph.

This grey-toned work does what no camera should and gives its subject legs of differing lengths. Elsewhere he draws a hobnailed ballet pump in Dancer Bending Forward and a warped double bass in a frieze-like Dancers in the Rehearsal Room.

Chacoal sketch of a dancer hurling herself into a ballet move
Edgar Degas, Dancer (Préparation en dedans) (circa 1880-85). Charcoal with stumping on buff paper. Trinity House© Trinity House London and New York
There are plenty of examples here to suggest the impressionist master was not averse to some expressionist draftsmanship. His pastels, oils, and charcoal drawings are at times clumsy, at times filled with grace, not unlike dancers in rehearsal.

At least two drawings, Dancer (Prepération en Dedans) and Dancer Executing a Ports des Bras, are breathtaking moments when he pulls off a difficult move. But imaging technology is, all the while, just warming up.

Degas works through the advent of several innovations from the photo panorama to the first film shows by the Lumière Brothers. Perhaps the bravura insight of this show is the way he appears to be in tandem with a new technique called photosculpture.

This was a way of modelling button-bright clay portraits by taking two dozen photos from 360 degree’s worth of angles. Degas appears to have done the same with stick and paper and studies, which here surround his famous statue Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

Photo of a statue of a young ballerina
Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880-81, cast circa 1922). Purchased with assistance from The Art Fund, 1952© Tate, London 2010
Just as surprising is the artist’s own enthusiasm with a camera acquired in 1895. One photo shows fellow painter Renoir and poet Mallarmé posing in a fireside manner. In a mirror behind them can be seen Degas and his large tripod camera.

But if he was able to embrace photography, cinema seems to have proved too much. In 1915 he was approached by director Sacha Guitry with a request to appear in a film about senior living French artists. Renoir had agreed to it, but Degas refuses.

Guitry stakes him out and paps him at a time the artist is too poorly sighted to realise. His unwitting old age contrasts with the eager attention which a passing tricyclist and female pedestrian give over to the unfamiliar sight of a movie camera.

This is quite a sombre end to a show that is gloomy in a literal sense. In the interests of preserving the works on show the RA have gone with low lighting throughout. At times this makes it hard to read plaques and be sure about colours.

Nevertheless, you get the feeling they deserve the flowers which in the final painting on display here have landed at a dancer’s feet. Four long years of loan wangling must call for some nimble footwork and, mentally, the histories that have come to light are no less agile.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday and Saturday). Admission £15.50. Exhibition sponsored by BNY Mellon and supported by Region Holdings and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

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