"Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement"

By Davies, Christie | New Criterion, November 2011 | Go to article overview

"Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement"


Davies, Christie, New Criterion


"Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement"

Royal Academy of Arts, London.

September 17-December 11, 2011

The exhibition Degas and the Ballet succeeds in its main objective of showing how Degas's punctiliousness and openness to new styles and technologies shaped his portrayals of dancers. The essence of ballet for Degas was movement: rapid movement, controlled movement, extraordinary and almost unnatural movement. For him die ballet became an obsession as did another field of movement, the race course. In this context, horses and women were much the same to Degas, bodies that moved with speed and elegance.

Curiously, many of his finest works in the exhibition convey to tire viewer not movement but rather die static capturing of die difficult and precarious positions that the dancers had to adopt, as in The Rehearsal (1873-78) or even Two Dancers on the Stage (1874). There are here many fine sketches, paintings, and a sculpture of dancers in repose, getting ready, waiting, resting, and fatigued.

hi his masterpiece The Rehearsal (1874), it is not the impending movement of the dancers at the back of the scene that fascinates, but the setting, the placing of them between high bright windows at die end of a long stretch of open floor. The floor slides between two dominant static features in the foreground, a meticulously portrayed spiral staircase to the left and a group of waiting dancers to the right. Also noticeable in this work is the careful attention paid to die wall at the back, whose lowest part has been painted a darker scuff-proof color and the careful placing in a comer of the instructor with his bright red shirt. The work is a masterpiece of arrangement. The importance of movement lies in Degas's thinking not in our aesthetic perceptions.

Degas was initially scornful of die clumsy attempts by photographers to capture die elegantly awkward poses of the ballerina. Because of the long exposure times needed by early cameras, the dancers' cramped limbs had to be suspended by thin strings to hold diem in position. The photographs shown in the exhibition are in black and white and have no sense of movement. Degas knew he was superior. Yet as cameras improved and could capture movement, he became a keen photographer himself. He came to know well the work of the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the first man to capture accurately the movement of a galloping horse by using it to trigger in turn the shutters of a bank of cameras. It settled the argument as to whether a galloping horse takes all four hoofs off the ground and showed that it does so not when all four legs are stretched out but when they come together beneath the horse. Muybridge photographed dancers and thus appealed to both Degas's interests.

Degas was perhaps even more influenced by the French scientist Etienne-Tules Marey. Marey was, like Freud, William James, and Binet, a former pupil of the anatomist Jean-Martin Charcot, who made great use of photographs and drawings in his lectures and presentations. Marey, perhaps inspired by this, became both an innovative photographer and the leading savant of human and animal locomotion. He had predicted the result of Muybridge's experiment with the galloping horse and, using sophisticated cameras, was able to show exactly how athletes and dancers move. These moving pictures, together with his sequence of sculptures that show how birds fly, are in the exhibition--an apt combining of the history of science and of art. Degas is shown to be at die center of a dynamic and creative interaction of photography and painting.

As great an artist as he was, Degas could never entirely transcend die harsh fact that a drawing or a painting exists in only two dimensions and, however long in composition, is frozen in a single moment in time. Indeed the painter's gift is to render movement static, something the watcher cannot do. Degas also had all the other talents for creating form and color, depth and setting, and (well before die photographers) for cropping a painting such that an arm, the feet, or the head sit invisibly outside die frame. …

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