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

 

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses