Edgar Degas was a secretive type. One day a pioneer movie maker knocked on his door and asked if he could film him.
“I have absolutely nothing to say to you,” replied the great man. He wasn’t much more forthcoming about his art.
A new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts aims to penetrate some of Degas’s mysteries. One of his signature subjects was the ballet, specifically ballerinas -- on stage and off, practicing, single and in groups.
There’s a temptation to dismiss these pictures, with their pastel colors and flocks of young women in frilly skirts, as so much visual fluff: chocolate box stuff. The works in the show “Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement” have ended up on plenty of greetings cards and calendars.
The curators of the RA exhibition, Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar, suggest that Degas’s real interest was in analyzing movement, not in tutus and bodices. The point of the exercise is a sequence of comparisons between works by Degas and images that belong as much to the history of science as to art.
It’s the austere kind of show in which the visitor has to pay attention to the argument, rather than just relax and enjoy. That said, it offers insights into a supreme painter’s world.
Capturing precisely how humans and animals moved was an obsession of the age in which Degas lived (1834-1917). The Anglo-American Eadweard Muybridge and Frenchman Etienne-Jules Marey used unprecedentedly rapid camera speeds to record motion, a development that led to cinema: pictures that actually moved.
A number of animated images by Muybridge and others flicker into life on the walls of the RA. In his drawings and paintings, hung nearby, Degas was focusing on just such fleeting instants.
When he began to work in three dimensions, Degas made studies of the model for his sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” (1880-81) from 26 positions around her. This procedure was similar to a forgotten process dubbed “photosculpture,” in which the subject was photographed from numerous angles, and the results mechanically transferred to a piece of clay.
Similarly, Degas’s use of a wide, low format for a series of pictures he called “friezes” closely paralleled a vogue for panoramic photography. The results in pictures such as “The Dance Lesson” (circa 1879) are the equivalent in painting of a cinematic panning shot. When Degas himself took up photography, he preferred atmospheric interiors by night, not figures in motion.
There is plenty on show to suggest that Degas’s art was interwoven with the history of photography. Yet, fundamentally, he was doing something very different from Marey or Muybridge. His pictures are richer than theirs because, though the subject is rapid motion, his working process was slow and meditative.
The late dance scenes in the last room -- the most beautiful in the show -- move into a private dream-world, free, almost abstract. Whether that looseness was the result of experimentation or failing eyesight isn’t clear.
The filmmaker at the door, Sacha Guitry, wasn’t discouraged by that brush-off from Degas. He set up his camera in the street outside, and filmed the painter when he came out for a stroll. The resulting few seconds of cinema-verite record a white- bearded man in dark glasses -- by that time he was almost blind. This was 1914 or 1915. Degas looks like a ghost walking through modernist Paris, enigmatic to the last.
“Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J 0BD.
The show is sponsored by BNY Mellon, Region Holdings and the Blavatnik Family Foundation. Information: +20-7300-8000 or http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/degas/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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