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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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution