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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