Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement
17 September – 11 December 2011
at the Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London
Sponsored by BNY Mellon
There she stands in a brightly-lit glass box, her head tilted upwards, her body language seemingly stating patient boredom or perhaps just teenage ‘attitude’. She is recognized the world over and normally can be seen in the Tate Museum in London. But now, for three months, she has a room dedicated to her and her creator in Piccadilly. The statue, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’, is one of the exhibits on show in the Royal Academy of Arts’ landmark exhibition entitled ‘Degas and the Ballet. Picturing Movement’ which opened September 17th and continues until December 11th. For this unique exhibition, which gives a superb glimpse into the ballet world of the late 19thcentury in Paris and traces the development of the artist of this specialized subject, approximately 85 of Degas’ works have been obtained from museums across Europe and North America.
Degas’ famous sculpture – the only one of his sculptural works exhibited in his life time – was originally made of flesh-coloured wax, with real hair, a muslin skirt and shoes and ribbons of pink satin, and it caused a scandal when first exhibited for its radical realism for depicting a young girl in what some believed was the profession of a prostitute, and for making her ugly. Today, Marie von Goethem, ‘le petit rat’ from the Paris Opera Ballet School, is immortalized in bronze and looks as pert as ever, with hands clasped behind her back, her feet in fourth position with weight on the back foot. Her not-so-beautiful chubby face with retrouse nose, is fringed and her eyes are closed, possibly because she was weary with having to pose so long for the artist. After all, it must have taken time for Degas, encircling the pubescent student, to do the more than twenty drawings, showing her from every angle, and perhaps that was the reason for her expression. But for this exhibition, this famous bronze also endorses the theme of ‘movement’ in all its ways – here it was the artist who did the moving around his stationary subject.
The theme of dance and movement is evident the moment you ascend the marble staircase, by-passing the racks of postcards and glossy catalogues, to enter into the darkened entrance hall of the exhibition. Before you, beamed onto the wall is a silhouette of a ballerina in arabesque (another of Degas’ sculptures) turning full circle. Entering the exhibition, the attention is caught by a large sombre portrait of the artist. Dressed in black with a top hat in his hands, he looks like an undertaker – until you notice his penetrating eyes. Still it is hard to imagine how someone as formal as he, was able to blend, presumably unnoticed, in the dance studios of the Paris Opera for so many years, sketching those intimate moments of a dancer’s life. (It is interesting that the last exhibit of the exhibition- the ‘Coda’ – is a very short black and white crackly film of Degas as an old man. Taken surreptitiously by film director Sasha Guitry in 1915, it shows the now nearly-blind Degas, with dark glasses and a wonderful white bushy Father Christmas beard, strolling on a Parisian street with all its cafes. People wander by but one young girl recognizes him and turns her pretty face to look at him and broadly smiles as he passes. (Or was it at the cameraman?)
The press viewing held on September 13th had the added attraction, not only of the lively descriptions of the three curators, Richard Kendall, Jill De Vonyan and Ann Dumas but also the presence of the Royal Ballet’s beloved ballerina, Darcey Bussell, in a bright red figure-hugging dress, who added her own observations and quickly noted a sickle foot in one painting, though in all the others, she thoroughly approved of how Degas had captured the true atmosphere of a dancer’s working day.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born in 1834 into a banking family and, while he briefly studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and travelled somewhat, he basically taught himself by copying other works of art. He is recognized as a leader of the Impressionist era and his principal subjects included portraits of singers, racehorse jockeys and nudes – these depicted a side of life not generally seen, such as women bathing and waiting for customers at brothels. However it was his ability to capture movement and purpose in the colourful, detailed paintings of dancers and their lives backstage which has immortalized him, and made him a recognizable artist the world over, not only in art galleries but also adorning a million chocolate, trinket and music boxes.
Degas was unlike the other men who frequented the theatre and whom he sometimes notes in his paintings. An abonnementfor the thrice-weekly performances allowed them to wander carte blanche backstage, to the wings and even the dressing rooms of the poorly-paid working-class dancers who took it for granted that the gentlemen weren’t necessarily interested in their art. However Degas’ purpose there was to record the everyday activities of these dancers, be it performing, in rehearsal, stretching at the barre, pulling up stockings, having a scratch, being laced into their costumes and or just resting, awaiting the call to perform. While he never studied dance himself, he learned much from sitting quietly, observing the seemingly awkward, unnatural positioning of hips and feet that dancers strive to show. And he recorded them correctly. But of the vast number of ballet scenes in the collection, there is only one painting that shows the distant figure of a male dancer. Degas was not interested in painting them at all, it seems.
In the first large gallery is the famous painting of The Rehearsal, created in 1874. It shows to the right a pretty young dancer sitting with feet in fourth position, her shoulders draped with a turquoise shawl and her lovely tulle tarlatan fluffed up and lifted over the back of the chair to prevent crushing. A woman in a bonnet is tending to the costume of another obscured ballerina and behind her, one can see the ballet master in beige jacket and red shirt supervising the dancers hard at work executing arabesques. The most visible has a big pink bow around the waist and a choker of black ribbon. Large French windows let in light. However, as was Degas’ custom, the picture is not over-packed with activity – he wants us to scan the canvas – and the centre-front is surprisingly empty except for the wooden floor. On the left, the back of a spiral staircase takes commanding position and behind it one can see a pair of legs and parts of the other dancers participating in the rehearsal. Interestingly, at the top of the picture and the staircase, one can see a pair of pink-slippered feet scurrying down to the studio.
He also commands our attention to scrutinize the whole canvas in several of his panoramic works to take in all the activity and colour. There is again a subtle use of empty space in ‘The Dance Lesson’. Here, a dancer, front left, in bright orange shawl sits bent over, exhausted, her head in her hands, with her tutu almost covering the fact that she is sitting on a double bass! After a gap, there are two dancers, one on a chair in pink wrap, the other standing fixing her blue bow, and in the distance there are dancers rehearsing. In Dancers in Green Room, one ballerina is adjusting her shoe with her foot on the double bass; others are tightening ribbons or adjusting a shawl. “This is absolutely typical of a ballet class scene,” stated Bussell. “We are always playing with our shoes, faffing around, tying ribbons, stepping in rosin or putting some in the backs of our shoes to prevent them slipping. He has truly depicted the atmosphere. This is how all dancers prepare for their work today as in those days – though sadly we are attired in tired old leotards and not the beautiful dresses of those times.” Moving on, she noted in the seemingly blurred sketch Preparation en dedans that he had again caught the positioning correctly. “I too studied the Cecchetti technique and this painting captures all the movement preparation for an inside pirouette—the ballerina is flinging herself into it and you can see and feel the action. He has got it down to a ‘T’.”
One gallery is devoted to the world of photography and cinematography and its early pioneers. Englishman Eadweard Muybridge and Frenchman Etienne-Jules Marey were some of the first to experiment and document movement in art, and short films have cleverly been made for this exhibition of their synchronized action sketches to create a moving sequence (does anyone remember the ‘flick books’ we had as kids that you whizzed through holding the edges to create a mini-cartoon scenario?). There are also some of Degas’ early attempts to capture it, such as in the three sculptures of ballerinas in different stages of executing an arabesque. Apparently when the artist Walter Thickett was invited to Degas’ studio to see one of these sculptures, he noted that Degas had placed it on a turntable, spotlight it and rotated it – just like a movie. Degas was playing with the concept of film before it even existed. However, he did buy himself a camera – at great expense – and there are three photos that he took, as well as one blown up for this exhibition to very large size entitled ‘Dancer (Arm Outstretched)’. Though faint and in a bright orange hue, it shows the outline of a well-placed dancer. However, the early photographs took such a long time to set up and take that the subjects had to have string attached to hold their limbs up, There is a photo of Marie Santaville where the cords are clearly visible. Sketching was far less trouble for all!
The final gallery is lovingly titled The Chapel by the exhibition organisers. ‘We are extremely proud of this room, “ stated Kendall. “It ends the exhibition on a high note. We have a truly magnificent display of pastels, rich in colour and technique, done by Degas in later years. The faces are more anonymous and the dancers seem to have slowed down somewhat. But the paintings are crackling with life!” And how true! They offer a riot of Technicolor glory. As he captures the mood of dancers ready to perform, his strokes are much more confidant and his movement freer with bold sweeps of pastel upon pastel in a blaze of oranges, turquoises, aquamarines. There are also some drawings of Russian (or rather Ukrainian) dancers whom he saw for the first time and admired the vitality and colours of their dances.
While Edgar Degas’ works on the nineteenth century ballet world are revealing and fascinating documents for the dance historian, balletomane and general public, he did not glamorize the art but skilfully showed the hard work involved by the ballerinas to capture those magical moments on stage. This exhibition offers a truly satisfying and intimate glimpse into their extraordinary and dedicated lives.