Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement

Degas may be long dead, but his figures move through time to remind us of the beauty of his work and its visceral power, writes Michael Howard

September 15, 2011

Credit: Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council
Pointes in time: In The Rehearsal (c.1874), the spiral staircase's geometric form suggests the anatomical structure of the dancers themselves

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement

Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 17 September to 11 December

"Yesterday", wrote Edmond de Goncourt in his journal on 13 February 1874, "I spent the afternoon in the studio of a painter named Degas. After many attempts...he has fallen in love with the modern and, right before us, seized upon the spot, are the graceful twisting movements and gestures of the little monkey-girls...Up to now, he is the man who has best captured...modern life."

This stunning exhibition situates Edgar Degas' work within the context of the development of photography and the moving image. In doing so, it confirms how the idea and reality of movement were central to his concerns as an artist. The visitor is offered a brilliant series of insights into how one man spent a lifetime meditating upon the mysteries of movement, time, memory and representation. It is a visual and conceptual experience of the highest order.

Degas was the most technically accomplished and supremely radical of all the 19th-century artists who responded to Baudelaire's call for a "painter of modern life"; one who would find an appropriate means of expressing the defining characteristics of the modern urban experience. This art would be defined in part by "the transient, the fleeting and the contingent", and in part by "the eternal and the immovable". In other words, a paradoxical conjunction of the vital quality of lived experience and the inevitable stillness of the painted surface.

The ballet allowed Degas to paint the contemporary while keeping company with the artists of the past whom he revered so much, and who represented for him the eternal quality of art. When asked to explain his fascination with the ballet, Degas answered: "Because I find there the complex movement of the Greeks."

The Greeks, as Degas well knew, had mastered the art of organising the flowing rhythms of limbs and garments to suggest the full potential of a body moving through space and time. Over the centuries, artists had developed any number of conventions to suggest movement through time in order to create a sense of narrative. Those of the medieval period, for example, would repeat one figure a number of times within the same painting, in similar fashion to the strip cartoons and graphic novels of our own time.

Developments in photography had shown artists new possibilities of capturing time in a single, static image. Degas and his colleagues entered into a prolonged creative and competitive dialogue with this new technical process and exulted in the possibilities it offered them. Artists were liberated from the cliches of orthodox artistic practice and empowered to represent reality in new and vital ways. The photographic blurring of a head caught in movement revealed, in a single glance, the simple fact that human beings exist within and not outside time. By the 1860s, instantaneous photography revealed those awkward moments when a body is caught mid-gesture, activating in the mind of the spectator the natural desire to bring that frozen movement to rest.

The shock of modern urban experience only intensified a perennial problem that painters have always had to face: how to represent movement in a convincing and aesthetically satisfying way. Degas' works, above and beyond their extraordinary beauty and visceral power, are a deep and sustained questioning as to how this process operates.

Unable through personal conviction to paint the religious or historical subjects that had been the stock-in-trade of past masters and many of his contemporaries, Degas found their parallels elsewhere: in the race course, the theatre and, of course, the ballet.

Degas' paintings and drawings move from the almost scientific scrutiny of the "thing seen" to something much more generalised and ambiguous, without any loss of vitality. Any suggestion of randomness - the contingent, as Baudelaire would say - is illusory; Degas' work is meticulously planned, a series of "operations". As he said, "no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament...I know nothing."

This may not be evident at first glance. The Rehearsal (c.1874), for example, which, like all Degas' work, demands to be seen afresh at every encounter, seems at first sight like a direct transcription of a single moment, caught as if snapped on a mobile phone (and how Degas would have relished the opportunities such technologies offer). However, this apparently chaotic ensemble is as artfully composed as any Renaissance painting - or a narrative sequence in a film. The impact of the silvery light, the breathtaking evocation of space and atmosphere, offer the viewer a virtual invitation au voyage. Degas' wit and visual humour are evident in the startling presence of the spiral staircase, its geometric form suggestive of the anatomical structures of the dancers, but it also breaks the line of dancers and allows only a glimpse of another two registered by their feet alone. Such an achievement is the result of superlative technical skill but also great intellectual engagement: the room pictured here had burned down a few years before.

Another early example of his technical mastery is his Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera 'Robert Le Diable' (1876). The viewer is placed among the audience who, along with the orchestra immediately in front, are depicted in high definition, while above them on the stage the ghosts of dead nuns engage in their provocative dance - a blur of light and movement.

Degas' knowledge is grounded in drawing and in his practice of making wax models, a number of which were cast in bronze after his death. Along with Rembrandt, he possesses the uncanny ability of seeming to inhabit the bodies he draws, paints and models. This can be seen in all his works, but the studies and drawings that are placed around the bronze of the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (1880-81) reveal the core of his obsessive practice. Integral to his art was the creation of these wax models - made not for exhibition, nor as preparatory works, but as part of an ongoing process. Walking around the exhibition, the sensation is unmistakable: it is like being inside the artist's mind - the works are not seen as ends in themselves, it seems, but as a continuing process. Towards the end of his life, Degas told his dealer, Ambroise Vollard: "I would give a hatful of diamonds for the pleasure of starting over." Degas' constant engagement with the process of making art is not to capture time or contain it, but to be in it.

Degas was relentless in his examination and exploration of the female body. As he grew older and his sight worsened, so the artificial nature of his practice became ever more apparent and the ballet, increasingly, a mere pretext to pursue his private concerns. These late works, in their sumptuous colour and encrusted surfaces, in the massiveness of their eloquent but mysterious forms, are far from the quasi-documentary exploration of the ballet encountered in the earlier works. Spaces and anatomical precision grow increasingly ambiguous, as line and colour intermingle to create surfaces of extraordinary sensual and expressive power. These are the consummation of a lifetime's relentless scrutiny of the body in motion or poised between movements: the weight, balance and grace of the human form - and its essential instability. A former prima ballerina, speaking of Degas, made this unforgettable comment: "Degas shows us the blood in the shoe." How true.


Michael Howard is senior lecturer in contemporary art history, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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