Degas Girls Film And The Ballet

“No art is less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters.” Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is best known for his works depicting horse racing, laundresses, bathing nudes and above all for his ballet dancers. The exhibition at The Royal Academy in London focuses on Degas’s preoccupation with rendering the movement of the dance.  It comprises around 85 paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, prints and photographs by this French master and places them alongside photographs by his contemporaries and examples of early film.

The exhibition is one of those dimly lit affairs whereby the large rooms are made to feel intimate by the use of lighting.  Unfortunately, in places this made the works difficult to view and the labels hard to read as well as not doing justice to Degas’s sense of colour.  Often the muted colours of his background are offset by a brightly coloured sash or tutu and these did not stand out, as they should.

Exhibitions these days seem to be a visual essay.  New directions in curatorship are didactic.  It is not enough to explore works and to reach ones own conclusions but we are shown what to think.  It is always interesting to see what else was happening at the time and the exhibition explores the feats of photography: the early studies in movement by Marey, Muybridge and Nadar and films by the Lumiere brothers. It also influenced his other subjects such as horse racing and more could have been made of this.  However, it ignores other influences such as Japanese art and especially the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

The overwhelming feel of the exhibition is of his painstaking studies.  Drawings of different dancing positions, the feet, arms, bends in chacoal, pastel and chalk which bears out Degas’s statement that: “One must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement.” There is a whole room dedicated to the many studies he made of the sculpture of the “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”.  The model was a ballet student from the opera, Marie van Goethem, who posed for a series of twenty drawings each made from a different viewpoint.

You also come away from the exhibition struck by his use of composition.  His use of the cut-off figure from the side as well as the top, the low or high viewpoints and the use of unusual shaped canvasses.  One of the most striking rooms is Room 4 in which his long thin canvasses mimic the photographs of panoramic scenes. “The Dance Lesson” 1879 particularly stands out.  Also, “Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert Le Diable’ 1876 where the viewpoint is from the orchestra looking up at the ghost like figures of the nuns rising from their graves. Degas’s use of light and colour is always striking and not just in his late looser oils and pastels, which have more dynamic brushstrokes and saturated colours but also in the earlier works, which are more subtle eg the light from the window or from the incandescent stage lighting.

The exhibition has much to commend it and will clearly be the must see exhibition of the London autumn season. It is quite surprising that this is not a travelling exhibition as it would clearly be a success in any city.

Words: Sara Faith Photo: © ArtLyst 2011

  Degas and the Ballet: Picturing movement  Royal Academy 17 September until 11 December 2011.