Thursday, September 15, 2011

REVIEW: Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement

One of three major Art Exhibitions in London this Autumn is at the Royal Academy of Arts Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement opens this Saturday (17 September) and continues until 11 December.

Edgar Degas - The Dance Lesson, c. 1879
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

This exhibition has assembled around 85 paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, prints and photographs by Degas - from public institutions and private collections in Europe and North America.

You can see ten images of works in the exhibition on the Royal Academy website.  

The artwork on display includes both celebrated and little-known works by Degas, including the sort of preparatory drawings which were never intended for either sale or exhibition.  Rather the latter were a way of Degas assembling a pictorial record over time of how the movement in ballet actually worked.

Also included in the exhibition are photographs by his contemporaries and examples of early film and a number of photographic records and artefacts normally found in a museum.

The exhibition aims to offer an insight into the process of how Degas viewed and recorded the movement of dance  and dancers in order to create pictures of movement in his drawings and paintings of dancers.   There have been a number of exhibitions of Degas and the Dance before - as one might expect - but none which have attempted to articulate its connection with photography and it's believed this exhibition is unique.

I went to see it on Tuesday and can certainly recommend it as an essential exhibition for all fans of Degas's art and anybody interested in the early development of photography and its connection with art. 

Fans of Degas should also note that this exhibition is not going to be travelling.  It's been four years in the making and is ONLY being held at the RA in London.  I guess because many of the pieces are drawings which conservationists prefer to see have limited exposure to light and air; many have also come from private collections - and in the case of one notable oil painting of a dancer being photographed in a studio - from the Pushkin Museum in Russia.

There's an awful lot to like about this exhibition.  There are some splendid paintings - including some on loan from other countries that we are not likely to see again in London in my lifetime.  The curators are to be congratulated for securing the works they have.  There's also some painstaking research which has contributed to a better understanding of how drawings and photographs connected through to some finished work.

However, being a major Degas fan and somebody who has studied him in some depth, I have to say that I was disappointed by some of the aspects of Degas's which are left undeveloped or omitted in terms of some of the conclusions being drawn. I'll elaborate as I continue with this review.

A major fan of Degas

It's curious to start a review of an exhibition with a mention of the sponsor.  However in the case of BNY Mellon, it's highly relevant.  The catalogue tells us that the work of Degas was a personal favourite of the banker Paul Mellon - who was also an art collector and philanthropist.  It's also worth noting that in 1956, Paul Mellon bought the entire collection of the artist's original wax sculptures and then bequeathed them to galleries and museums in the UK, America and France for future generations to enjoy.  Now that's what I call a good reason to continue the sponsorship!

I'm also a major fan of Degas - as you would expect of anybody who loves both drawing and dry media!

The scope of the exhibition
They call me the painter of dancers, not understanding that for me the dance is a pretext for.... rendering movement
Edgar Degas
This exhibition is a little curious as it's not just a Degas exhibition.  In the middle there is a room which is given over to a technical explanation about the development of photography.  There is certainly an awful lot about the contemporary photography of the period throughout this exhibition.

In one sense this is good, because in the past this aspect has had a low profile.  There's not been a lot of research done about the impact of photography on Degas's art.

The exhibition is certainly educational and informative about the developments in photography and Degas's own involvement in taking photographs.

On the other hand, in emphasising the role of photography, I think the exhibition has maybe gone too far in isolating the art from the other key influences on Degas's work.  It simultaneously over-eggs the role of photography at the same time as underplaying, for example, the role of other forms of monochromatic images which influence Degas's work - such as the monotypes he created which formed under-drawings for a number of his later pastels.  It fails to make any link at all between these two different forms of monochromatic printmaking - which I found odd.

So this exhibition is good - because it advances our knowledge and, at the same time, in my opinion it's also problematical because it introduces a possible distortion in our attempt to understand the complete man and the unity across his output.

However if you just want to go and look at his drawings and paintings there's lots to enjoy!

Degas and painting

There are more paintings in the earlier rooms which include some, but not all, of the more well known ones.  Degas was an excellent draughtsman and a fine oil painter and the paintings in the earlier rooms reflect how good he was at creating assemble scenes without the benefit of photography.

Degas and drawing

There are very many drawings in the exhibition.  Most are in charcoal or are three colour drawings and are obviously preparatory studies for works he was developing.

What's interesting is that whereas some of the lighter lines have previously been considered by some art historians to be pentimenti (ie a trace of a previous line which has been corrected), it's now suggested that in fact what Degas is doing is recording the arc of the arms or the legs as they proceed through different movements and that he's left the lines in quite deliberately to describe the arc of movement

At the preview we were accompanied by Darcy Bussell,  who provided expert comment on Degas's work from the perspective of a dancer who used to the Principal Ballerina with the Royal Ballet.  She confirmed that he had obviously worked long and hard with the dancers as his observational drawings precisely reflect the correct placement of the feet and the movement of the dancers.  Apparently Degas has dancer technique down to a "t".

In one drawing, she quickly recognised the dancer as preparing herself to launch herself into an inside pirouette - which requires this somewhat odd posture just before it starts.  In the drawing below, the dancer is unable to sustain and model the pose and this could only have been drawn through repeated movement - of preparing for a turn and jump.

Edgar Degas - Dancer (Préparation en dedans), c. 1880-85
Charcoal with stumping on buff paper 33.6 x 22.7 cm
Trinity House | Image courtesy Trinity House, London and New York

She speculated that he must have done some drawings over and over again as the drawing is of a dancer in the middle of a movement.  She also considered that some of the drawings and paintings are of different perspectives of the same ballerina performing a particular movement.  She's firmly of the opinion that the painting below is of one ballerina portrayed in a progression.

Edgar Degas - La Danse Grecque (Dancing Ballerinas) 1885-90
Pastel on joined paper laid down on board, 58 x 49 cm
On loan from the Honorable Earle I. Mack Collection

Degas and sculpture

The exhibition also highlights something of the process of how the sculpture The Little Dancer came to be developed.  There's an absolutely fascinating exhibit in Room 2 which demonstrates how if you piece various drawings together - which can be seen all round the room - they can be seen to provide a 360 degree tracking perspective of Marie van Goethem the "little rat" who modelled for the sculpture of the The Little Dancer.

The curators have put this in the context of a development of a little known process called photo-sculpture. This involved people sitting in the middle of a room which had a lot of cameras around the edge. The cameras are then used to create a 360 degree perspective of the subject.  The room also demonstrates how Nadar takes a different perspective.  He sat in front of a camera on a revolving stool and achieved the same thing by rotating on his stool at the same time as taking photos.

I wasn't sure though if this room established any connection between Degas's practice and developments in photography.  It seemed to me that it was at least possible that photography was beginning to emulate age old practices of artists assembling information for a sculpture via drawing from different perspectives.

I can't however leave the subject of sculpture without stating my problem with the exhibition of the little dancer bronzes.  In my view, they were created by Degas in wax as maquettes - just as artists do today when they are working on drawing figures (See James Gurney for a prime example!).  To my mind they have exactly the same status as his drawings.  They are an essential tool in the development of his finished artwork - but they are preparatory stages rather than finished artwork in their own right.

They certainly never existed in bronze in his lifetime.  With the exception of the little dancer, we don't even know if they were considered finished works.  The difference in the degrees of finish would suggest many of the smaller works were "studies".

Too often I see too little reference to their reason for existence.  If they were ever intended as sculptures, I'd love to know the reason why they were never cast in bronze during Degas's lifetime?

Edgar Degas - Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1880-81, cast c. 1922
Painted bronze with muslin and silk, 98.4 x 41.9 x 36.5 cm
Tate. Purchased with assistance from The Art Fund, 1952
Image © Tate, London, 2010
Even the large sculpture The Little Dancer never existed as a bronze until after Degas's death.  When we see The Little Dancer today (this one is borrowed from the Tate) we do not see it as if we were the people attending that Sixth Impressionist Exhibition.  Degas created a three-quarter life size nude sculpture in reddish-brown wax.  She was then given a real hair wig tied with a ribbon and dressed in a silk bodice and a tulle and gauze tutu and on her feet she had fabric ballet slippers.  Pigmented wax in "real" flesh colours was then rubbed into her "skin" to enhance the life-like look.  She looked very real and yet wasn't real at all.  I do hope one day somebody will make a "real" copy of what this Little Dancer would really have looked like - and then exhibits it.  (The original wax model is now located in the National Gallery in Washington - but no longer looks as it was when originally displayed)

I've always been inclined to think that Degas would be quite horrified if he saw the little maquettes displayed as bronzes and given a "finished" status they did not appear to enjoy in his lifetime.  Also that it's such a pity that the one sculpture that he did display has never been seen as it was originally exhibited.

That said, they do exist, the little dancers are an extremely important part of this process for making art, they work brilliantly as "studies" and it's fascinating to be able to see them.  Even better to see them as you can in this exhibition arranged to portray the progression of movement.

The role of photography

My own personal view is that some of the conclusions proposed by the exhibition catalogue about the influence of photography in general on Degas are somewhat over-egged.  Some of the conclusions drawn about the influence of photography lean towards fitting the theme of the exhibition rather than being presented in the context of a wider recognition of other influences on Degas's art.  There's no evidence for some of them whereas there is plenty of other evidence suggesting alternative explanations.

I'm thinking particularly here of the influence of Japanese art and in particular the influence of the compositional format used by Hokusai and Hiroshige on Degas plus Degas's extensive involvement with monochromatic printmaking.  Reference to these aspects of Degas's work were possibly pushed out by a need to give room to photography - that other form of monochromatic printmaking - who knows?

The notion suggested by the curators that the frieze paintings (in a panoramic format) came from photography totally ignores the very strong influence of Japanese art and its format and design on Degas's work in the latter part of the twentieth century.  Panoramas were in use by artists well before photography was invented!

Rather than Degas being influenced by the panoramic photographs taken in the late nineteenth century, it's far more likely that the format and composition used by photographers were influenced by the landscape formats used in Japanese prints which were all the rage in Paris at the time

Degas may have been known as "the painter of dancers" but there was an awful lot more to him than the fact that he drew and painted dancers.

I'd have liked to see more emphasis on how photography played a part in creating a transition - of helping the process of recording movement and translating the dancer in real life through to the finished artwork - within the context of the other influences on Degas's art.  In other words - how did he work from photos?

I had been really looking forward to seeing more about how photography influenced the monotypes which he sometimes used as underdrawings for his pastels and how he progressed from the monochromatic in terms of charcoal drawings, photographs and monotypes through to the colour which he added last - to such fine effect.  I was disappointed because this aspect of his work is absent from the exhibition - and yet I've seen a little of it in previous exhibitions about the work of Degas.

Perhaps there could have been
  • more of a focus on 
    • the whole of the artistic process
    • how picturing movement in the ballet connected and translated to rendering movement in other subject matter - especially where this was drawn from the activities of daily life which were not static
    • how Degas promoted the unity of his work across different subject matter and media rather than emphasising the discrete
    • how the dancers fitted in to the themes of the rest of his work (as for example, explored by Werner Hoffman in his book on Degas)
  • less focus on how photography developed at the same time - and more focus on how Degas's output changed as his contact with photography grew over time.  For example did it help him to assemble groups?  Did it have an impact on composition which can be evidenced?
What I'd have also liked to see more of was the extent to which the camera allowed Degas to be even more of a detached observer than he was already.  The introduction of the camera inbetween the eye and the subject transforms how the brain processes the visual picture.

It's also known that Degas was interested in the notion of superimposing images and it would have been be interesting to see how this worked in relation to photography and finished artwork.

I came away wondering what were the main differences in Degas's art before and after he personally started to use a camera.  I suspect there's still a lot more research to be done in this area and this exhibition while it provides a good introduction to the topic does not provide the last word.

Girls on film - and Degas

The exhibition contains a number of photographic and film images of dancers.  Some are by Eadweard Muybridge.  Others are of a remarkable dancer called

Eadweard Muybridge - ‘Woman Dancing (Fancy)’, plate 187 of Animal Locomotion (1887)
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Image © Royal Academy of Arts, London / Prudence Cuming (used with permission)
I would have liked to see more explicit demonstrations of how it is possible to track the process of the photographic image through to the finished drawing. Below you can see two images which are a near miss.

Edgar Degas - Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap 
Modern print from gelatin dry plate negative 18 x 13 cm
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris Image © Bibliothèque nationale de France
While it's highly likely that Degas did a lot of his drawing freehand it's also possible as his eye sight deteriorated that he needed some help - and maybe that's where the photos came in?

I'd be interested to know whether he developed any sort of enlargement process.  Also whether he used the tracing paper to work out the shapes before turning it over to use the other side for pastel.  These technical aspects don't get addressed by the exhibition - and to me these seemed a bit like "the missing link".

Edgar Degas - Dancers, c. 1899 
Pastel on tracing paper laid down on board, 58.8 x 46.3 cm
Princeton University Art Museum. Bequest of Henry K. Dick, Class of 1909. Image Bruce M. White
Room 8:  The Chapel

The penultimate room of late pastel works provides the high point of the exhibitions in terms of colour.  It's the only room where virtually all the content is finished artwork in colour - and it's some colour!  It contains a number of large pastel drawings completed in his later years when his eyesight was failing.  Pastel was the principal medium he used in later life - from the 1890s onwards as he began to lose his sight.  However the pastel colours are all fresh and vibrant.

Tomorrow I'm doing a post of answers to some of my questions about Degas's use of pastels.

Interestingly, in these later drawings the dancers are largely static and are often in groups.  It's as if the energy to draw a moving dancer as a model from observation has depleted and now he must depend on his maquettes, his preparatory drawings and his photographs.

Degas on film

There are a number of photographs of Degas in the exhibition, both formal and informal.  It's evident that he became a fan of the camera and photography and owned a couple of cameras.  Apparently he was renowned for turning up to any event with his camera in tow.

The exhibition comes to a poignant end with a film of Degas himself.  Having declined to be photographed for a documentary, the film-maker actually ambushed him - in a candid camera sort of way - walking with his niece along the street.

Thus the man who spent a large part of his career portraying people in their private and informal moments had now been recorded for posterity in the reality of his later life as a man who was very nearly blind and who needed help in walking about Paris.

For American Readers / Degas fans everywhere

Thanks to Tyler Green (Modern Art Notes) for highlighting the fact that there is a second exhibition about Degas and the ballet this Autumn.

In the USA, Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint will open on October 1 at the The Phillips Collection in Washington on October 1 and continue until January 8. This particular exhibition also examines the ballet in Degas’s art. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Phillips’ own late 19thC Degas masterpiece, Dancers at the Bar

More London Exhibitions

Note:  For those wondering, I think the other major two crowd-pullers in London this Autumn will be:
All three exhibitions are an excellent reason to visit London to see some art this Autumn!


  1. I can't wait to see this exhibition. Thank you for an excellent review.

  2. Since I won't be going to London soon, I will use this excellent review and vicariously indulge in the master Degas' works. It looks to be terrific, and I usually don't think of the movement of his ballerinas, but rather I think of the form and the overall picture. Good food for thought.

    It does beg the question of how the curator wants to play the balance between unifying all aspects of the artist's career, and spotlighting the one aspect. Good that you bring this up.


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