Art review: Degas and Ballet | Royal Academy, London

These paintings depict dancers as exemplars of the human animal.

"Dégas and Ballet: Picturing Movement" at the Royal Academy in London is an exceptionally fine exhibition of French painter and sculptor Edgar Dégas's work.

Seeing this artist's oils and pastels in the flesh is always a revelation. In reproduction there is a danger that his work can, especially when reproduced on a small scale, look a little saccharine. No other impressionist painter's art suffers as much in this way. But seeing the originals is almost magical. The Rehersal, from 1874, depicting dancers from the principal ballet company in Paris, is a tour de force of visceral pictoral dynamism. Dancers exercise and rehearse their steps, achieving a stark contrast between work and rest. A ballerina rushes down a spiral staircase, whilst others assume postures of repose in the foreground. Yet another practices under the beady eye of the ballet master. This is an art of close looking, based on the acuteness of Dégas's vision and the shimmering subtlety of his technique, thus achieving a "scrupulous truth". The tightly cropped composition invites us to scan the image from side to side and from foreground into a subtly receding depth. But there is also a surprising toughness to the work, based on Dégas's pursuit of "movement in its exact truth", and his interest in depicting the dancers as exemplars of the "human animal".

Edgar Dégas, born in Paris in 1834, was celebrated in his own lifetime as the "painter of dancers", and the RA has focused this show on the artist's enduring interest in movement as exemplified by these athletes. The exhibition charts the development of Dégas's work over his entire career, from the documentary images of the 1870s to the more loosely rendered evocations of 30 years later. Of particular interest is the tracing of Dégas's interest in new developments in photography and film, and his personal involvement with these technological advances. All this is illustrated with more than 85 paintings sculptures, pastels, drawings and photographs by the artist.

Part of Dégas's greatness lay in his ability to depict modernity, to identify and reveal something of what was essential in the spectacle of modern life as lived in late 19th-century Paris, a city that had undergone profound physical changes due to the recent construction of Haussmann's boulevards. Modernity needed its Dégas; indeed he was both a recorder and a product of the times he was born into. His artistic antennae were remarkably well suited to the task. Later on in life he was even to acquire a camera of his own, and took pictures of ballerinas and other models, using it as a framing device to help in the creation of his own unique compositions. In mid-career he became aware of the high-speed photographs of figures in action made by the scientist Etienne-Jules Marvey and the American photographer Edweard Muybridge. Drawings like Dégas's Dancer,from 1880-85, drawn in charcoal and recording multiple positions of a single limb, recall the photographs of both Muybridge and Marvey.

This exhibition is, then, about more than Dégas's wonderful depictions of ballet dancers in motion. It is also a panorama of life in the City of Light during the Belle Époque..

"Dégas and Ballet: Picturing Movement" runs at the Royal Academy, London W1 until 11 December

 

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times