Monday, October 10, 2011

Degas, Hockney and the freeze frame

I went to a free lunchtime lecture at the Royal Academy today on Degas and the Freeze Frame given Professor Katherine Adler, art historian.  She used to be Director of Education at the National Gallery and used examples of paintings she was familiar with in that gallery to provide context for points she was making about Degas and movement.

Interestingly, her view of Degas relationship with photography is very much closer to the one I'd always assumed - although not the one suggested by the exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement.

Here's a summary of some of the points she made:
  • a painting, as a two-dimensional space, cannot literally represent movement - hence our interest in how different painters tackle the problem of how to depict this
Renaissance habit of representing different points in time in the same painting
  • in Renaissance paintings, there is an interest in how Renaissance paintings depict the same form in time as well as space.  She illustrated this point by highlighting paintings in which the same person was in the painting twice - eg at the beginning and end of a journey.  Thus these paintings include two "freeze frames" within the same painting.  She used as an example Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1470) by Paolo Uccello which shows two different incidents "frozen" into the same painting.  
  • This is important as it demonstrates that painters have been painting "moments in time" for a very long time and that the notion of the "freeze frame" has nothing to do with photography per se.  In other words, the functionality of photography was not required to create paintings which depicted moments in time!
Degas and the Impressionists
  • Degas seems at times to be separate from the Impressionist movement.
  • However Impressionist painters were also concerned with painting moments in time (eg Renoir's Gust of Wind). However with some impressionist painters these prompt the question " what happened next?"
    • a series of moments become a timeline (eg hours of the day or seasons)
    • the timelines becomes a series of paintings of the same object at different times
Degas paintings of movement

The Rehearsal, c. 1874 by Edgar Degas
Oil on canvas, 58.4 x 83.3 cm
Lent by Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council.
Gifted by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944.
Image © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)
  • the Degas paintings are very often of a moment frozen in time.  The subjects are in the middle of doing something
  • He more often chose to represent a moment in rehearsal rather than on the stage
  • in "the Rehearsal" (see above) 
    • she highlighted how the two sets of feet on the left hand side suggested movement through space.  One set is coming down the stairs while the other set is peeping out from behind the spiral.  Neither set belongs to a clearly identifiable person and in looking at the painting it's as if we have the start and the finish of the journey in the same picture - as in the Renaissance paintings
    • the dancer in the middle is clearly portraying a moment in time
The Dance Lesson, c. 1879 by Edgar Degas
Oil on canvas, 38 x 88 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1995.47.6
Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
  • In The Dance Lesson, she suggested that the painting seems to show a sequence of activities - of movement from one stage to the next - by dancers in a rehearsal room.  From the left is 
    • the dancer slumped and "at rest", 
    • then a couple of dancers preparing to get involved - but one is still sitting while the other is experiencing back pain
    • then a dancer holding out her tutu and inspecting her feet
    • then a group waiting to dance 
    • and one about to perform
    • in all - they represent a sequence of the type of activities dancers go through while in the rehearsal room - it represents movement through time.
  • In general Degas leaves large areas of empty space to suggest areas of the room which dancers will move into - representing implicit movement.  Crowding the dancers into one part of the picture place creates the space and the suggestion of the place of future movement
Her conclusion re Degas and photography
  • Degas is interested in all forms of movement
  • He was interested in new technology and the possibilities they offered
  • He had a more complex understanding of movement than that represented by the cinematography of the day.  He would have had a very clear sense of what he expected a photograph to show - simply though his observation and intense study of eg racehorses and dancers.  
  • the space he leaves empty gives the idea that the dancers are about to move into that space
  • Degas on occasion squared up his paintings - which seems to be at odds with the alla prima approach of the Impressionists
  • Photography- and sequences of photos - would provide corroboration and confirm what Degas already knew from his studies of race horses and dancers
She suggested that Degas had an awful lot in common with David Hockney.  I hadn't thought about it until she mentioned it but it now makes complete sense to me.

  • Both have demonstrated a constant curiosity with different ways of representing the world and a keen interest in the technology of the day.  Both have used technology more from the perspective of how it might be used to extend and elaborate (or simplify) existing practice.
  • Thus their emphasis is on how they can use technology to supplement what they're doing already rather than how it can be used to replace what they are trying to do.

The sketch

I had two Moleskines open on my lap and was making notes in the red one while at the same time drawing the scene in front of me in my Moleskine sketchbook!  There was constant movement of my pen between the two! ;)

Lunchtime Lecture: Degas and the Freeze Frame at the Royal Academy of Arts
pen and sepia ink, 8 x 10" in Moleskine sketchbook
The Degas exhibition continues in the Main Galleries of the RA until 11 December 2011.  You can read my previous posts about it by clicking the links below:


jeannette said...

Thanks for this wonderful insight into a lecture I couldn't possibly have attended. I love your sketch too, reminds me of a Mary Cassatt painting at the Opera I believe.

Shirley Fachilla said...

Degas is one of my favorite painters past or present. I love many things about his work: his composition (all those wonderful empty spaces) and the sense, the feeling of movement he created.
Thank you for the capsule lecture. It has given me new avenues of thought about Degas and about Hockney... a combination that never occurred to me!

Marian Fortunati said...

Interesting and instructive post, Katherine...
Also love the fabulous sketch you did while listening!!! WOW!!

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