‘Degas and the Ballet – Picturing Movement’ at the Royal Academy of Arts

26 Oct

Why was Degas so fond of the ballet…

This exhibition has come under some criticism for attempting to impose the theme of ‘movement’ on Degas’ numerous portrayals of performing dancers. When asked himself as to why he chose dance as a recurring subject, Degas replied that he was trying to capture ‘the movement of the Greeks,’ whose grace he felt they epitomised. Considering this ancient classical influence, and the fact that his paintings were often presented as an alternative to new innovations in photography, even mocked them, it seems occasionally artificial to try to link his artistic development with developments in photographic technology. This being said, it is impossible to state with certainty how and to what extent that an artist is influenced by their cultural environment. Furthermore, the use of multiple media of presentation, like film and photographs of moving animals, does help enhance the viewer’s sensory experience.

At the beginning of the exhibit, Degas’ portrayals of ‘A Rehearsal,’ highlighted in perfect pastel shades, and ‘A Ballet Rehearsal,’ in more banal colours and surroundings, effectively capture both the innocent glamour of the French ballet, and the humble upbringings of most of the young dancers. While Degas never fully professed himself an Impressionist, and did not actively seek to portray scenes of social realism, their influence on his pallette and style is evident. The painting of ‘A Ballerina posing for a photograph’ is seen as a deliberate contrast with the highly staged photos of dancers, also competing for public attention at the time; his decision to set the photo in a modern studio with a view of the Parisian skyline from the window is perhaps his bid to vye with technical ‘innovation.’
Ironically, photographic technology was such that it was less effective at capturing movement than paintings, and subjects were forced to stay in a stationary pose, usually in some contrived scene with complicated props. This theory does fit with what we know of Degas’ slightly old-fashioned advocacy of artistic craftsmanship, evident throughout these lovely spontaneous works.

The second room is dedicated entirely to a wax sculpture, and the preparatory sketches for it, the ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.’ The model, Marie van Goethem, a ballet student from the Opera, posed for a series of twenty drawings from different angles, which Degas then transformed into a three-dimensional being. The curators get a little carried away with the idea that ‘Contrary to his usual practice, here it was the ballerina who remained still while the artist himself became an observer in movement.’ The contemporary controversy surrounding the object cannot be explained solely by its means of production, which apparently had been carried out before in a similar manner, by sculptor Francois Willeme with a ring of cameras. Perhaps it is down to the fact that in some of the photos the young dancer is nude, supporting evidence for the more unsavoury explanation sometimes posited for Degas’ obsession with painting young ballerinas. This is of course unfair on the artist: his subjects were of a variety of ages and appearances.

In his later years, it is asserted, his subjects aged along with the artist himself – or at least his technique mellowed, with the pallette becoming darker and more sombre, the figures more distinctly outlined. It is not true, however, that his subjects refrain from vigorous action in their old age any more than in his earlier works. The style is different but ‘movement’, such a key theme, is still in evidence. In some of these works he even painted with his fingers, creating a very physical effect. Another form Degas’ dancers took – slightly earlier, in the 1870s, when he reached probably his peak of public popularity – is in wide panoramic portrayals of ballet classrooms. Not merely rehearsals but classes where the performers are contrasted with diverse other pupils who fidget and play around, in one case two of them standing on the piano. Perhaps he sought to reveal the less idealised reality behind the perfectly staged performance which was all the audience knew of that world. The curators, again, link the form to developments in photography – particularly the cameras which, when placed on a tripod, could rotate to take in a larger panoramic view. Thus were numerous contemporary school pictures composed and recorded. Clearly though, Degas was as interested in the individual figures as the layout of the canvas, as he went back to perform separate studies of many of them.

Because of the design of the exhibition it is necessary to briefly touch on the photographic history placed alongside Degas’ work. Two ‘contemporary pioneers’ in using photography to accurately capture the human figure in action were Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. The former was responsible for the infamous eleven-volume ‘Animal Locomotion’, depicting both people and animals’ sequence of movements. A nice link is that Muybridge also spoke at the Royal Academy in 1882 and 1889. Marey reportedly had a more scientific approach to photography and declared hyperbolically that ‘movement is the most apparent characteristic of life.’ He, like Degas, also liked portraying ballerinas. The links made between artist and photographers, though, are limited to some sketches based on the work of the former and a vague stylistic likeness in the case of the latter. Degas’ own conversion to the camera, after he obtained his first model in 1895, occurred after he had already produced the main body of his work; before this he is alleged to have often mocked the medium. It seems, therefore, that Degas had a conflicting relationship with photographic innovations and, while movement was a key component of his images of the ballet, the technological means of portraying it may not have been uppermost in his mind while he was portraying them.

His figures did become more anatomically realistic in later years, as their muscle tone was progressively more defined; he also continued to occasionally experiment with portraying new forms of dance, like Greek dancing. In terms of photographic acheivements, they consisted largely of self-portraits and, in a final testament to his artistic legacy, in 1915 he himself was made a feature of the latest technological innovation; director Sacha Guitry lay in wait for him and filmed him secretly as he walked down the street (Degas had refused to be a part of the proposed documentary about respected French artists – Monet, Renoir, Rodin, who all gave their consent to be filmed.) This fairly accurately sums up Degas’ attitude to the intrusion of technical machinery on the art scene: however hard he fought, he could not prevent the movement, the onset of modernity.

 

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