The Royal Academy’s latest blockbuster takes a theme often discussed in art-historical textbooks yet rarely explored in public exhibitions: Edgar Degas’s life-long obsession with all things ballet.

His name – as with horseracing and laundresses – is synonymous with ballet. Degas virtually never ceased trying to re-create what he saw on-stage and back-stage at the Paris Opera, the centre of the balletic world. Degas once wrote: “Nothing in art should seem accidental, not even movement,” and indeed one can draw a very convincing analogy between the highly disciplined stage art of classical ballet and Degas’s endless rehearsals of choreographed line on paper and on canvas, which convey at once anatomical correctness and sweeping, graceful movement.

…a frenzied blur of ephemeral light, which the eye can barely follow.

Posture is everything!

In the first major display, ‘Describing the Dance’, the viewer encounters The Rehearsal of 1874 – a prime demonstration of just how “modern” Degas really was. The painting is a “snapshot” of a rehearsal at the Paris Opera, the composition radically cropped to give the image a sense of spontaneity and immediacy. Elements that can be seen to compete with the rather limited effects one could achieve in the 1870s with a portable Kodak camera.

In the painting Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert le Diable’, the dancers become a frenzied blur of ephemeral light, which the eye can barely follow. The gaze is semi-diverted to the more focusable details of spectators and musicians in the orchestra stalls directly in front, creating a fascinating contrast.

…a kind of physiognomic study of Parisian “low-life”.

Sketches

In the next room, ‘Mobile Viewing’, the Little Dancer aged Fourteen is placed at the centre of a ground-breaking display, where Degas’s working process is illustrated to the full. On display are sketches of his model Marie van Goethem from as many as 20 different viewpoints, both clothed and nude, with almost scientific exactitude. 

The end product, left in wax at the artist’s death but cast in bronze for posterity, is a kind of physiognomic study of Parisian “low-life”. Ballerinas were once known as the “rats of the opera,” because of their often-impoverished social background. The dancer’s overworked, slightly angular legs and cold, indifferent stare caused no little scandal when first exhibited. 

Degas’s working process is compared ingeniously with the photographer Nadar’s fascinating “in the round” 360-degree self-portrait, as well as the sculptor François Willeme’s intriguing if slightly kitsch brand of “photosculpture”.

…redefining his notion of movement in static media…

Visitors will be, perhaps, most surprised by the exhibition’s penultimate displays, which showcase Degas the Colourist. Late in his career as his eyesight was failing him, Degas took to painting the ballet as the gaudy spectacle of colour it undoubtedly was; bright patches of blues, yellows and reds articulated by rhythmic striations of line defining contours in almost abstract terms. Thus we have the elderly artist redefining his notion of movement in static media, imbuing his images with a new and very keen sense of vitality.

Degas and the Ballet is a greatly satisfying exhibition. It succeeds in presenting familiar images in an original light and manages to situate the artist’s oeuvre in its proper historical context, through numerous illuminating parallels with key developments in science and photography. The popular idea of Degas as a “chocolate-box” artist will soon be outmoded.

The exhibition continues until 11 December.

Admission: £14/£9

5 Stars

Images courtesy of The Royal Academy

 

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