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“Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement” at London’s Royal Academy

It is only in recent years that Edgar Degas has been categorised as an artist who painted ‘pretty’ pictures, and the upcoming exhibition of his works is meant to counter, if not scotch, that perception.  Degas himself would surely be surprised and horrified at such a reputation; he was a radical in his time and some of his finest creations were criticised as being far too lifelike and even sordid.

“Degas and the Ballet:  Picturing Movement” opens at London’s Royal Academy on September 17th to run through December 11th and will feature about 85 of Degas’ works, including a bronze cast of his controversial sculpture that offended a lot of critics when it first appeared in 1881.  “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” is the only sculpture that was ever exhibited while Degas lived; the original was done in skin-toned wax, with a real tutu and a wig of human hair.

In many ways that figure epitomises the artist’s view of his world.  Degas was not trying to glamourise the dancers he used as models in so many of his works.  In fact much of the impact and allure of his art lies in his ability to portray the reality behind the fluid grace of the ballet as performed on stage.  Degas was in his element when he haunted the backstage rooms of the Paris Opera, sketching the dancers as they practiced or adjusted hair and clothing prior to the opening curtain.

‘Still life’ is not a term that applies to Degas’ art, even though he died before the video camera began to take over from single frame photography.  His passion, according to his contemporaries, was depicting movement.  He was quoted as saying that those who called him a painter of dancers were missing the point, that he used them as a source for “pretty fabrics” and movement, both of which he captured to a marvellous extent.

Degas was fascinated by the cameras that appeared during his lifetime; he bought his first camera in 1895 after the technique became more sophisticated, and spent a lot of time in the dark room.  But the fact remains that his paintings manage to convey a sense of life and movement that no ‘still’ camera shot could match.  The artist would circle his model with painstaking precision in order to obtain the entire three-dimensional perspective that enlivens his paintings.

In later life (Degas died at the age of 83, in 1917) his eyesight began to fail and he turned to pastels instead of oils, presumably a less exacting medium, and those pastels are the images that attracted viewers who saw them as ‘pretty’ but seemingly failed to recognise the depth and intensity under all those layers of colour.  Degas was a master at capturing both the ‘froth and lace’ of beautiful fabrics and the often sweaty, striving bodies that wore them.

Critics and viewers in the general public may disagree about the sources and motivations behind Degas’ work, but in the final analysis there is a consensus about his place in the history of art in all its forms.  He was a dynamic and immensely talented artist with a tendency to flout convention and invent new methods and techniques that had a major impact on his contemporaries and his successors.

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