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

 

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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