Edgar Degas, the man who painted dancers, is the subject of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy. Jack Watkins went along to admire the work of one the greatest of the early Impressionists…
It’s fair to assume that almost no-one nowadays finds the art of the Impressionists ‘difficult’. An old Cockney acquaintance of mine used to joke that a Claude Monet landscape looked like it had been “done by a bloke wearing cloudy specs”, but generally they tend to be seen as chocolate box fare: pleasantly untaxing, nothing to scare the horses.
If you were still to find someone who remained stubbornly resistant to their charms, adhering to the old line that their paintings looked unfinished, were badly drawn or crudely painted, then the ‘accessible’ Impressionist you might start them off with could easily be Edgar Degas, among the more conventional members of the group.
Degas had an artistic schooling was as impeccable as that of any academician. He came from a well-to-do banking family and, in the traditional manner, had spent time in Italy, absorbing classical influences. He meticulously made copies of the old masters. One of the painters he most admired was the French master of line, Jean-Auguste Ingres, (“Draw lines, young man, many lines, from memory or from nature; it is in this way that you will become a good artist,” the old man, by then in his 70s, instructed Degas, who was taken to see him as a boy in the 1850s), and a key mark of Degas’s work would indeed be his technical mastery of drawing.
The carefulness of his preparations and the repeated, painstaking working-up of his subject matter would seem to be the antithesis of the Impressionistic hallmark of spontaneity. “No art was less spontaneous than mine,” he once explained. “What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” He openly scoffed, too, about fellow Impressionists’ pursuit of paintings outdoors.
Still, he was a major figure within the group all the same, taking a lead role in the organising of the first Paris salon. He was, too, by most accounts, something of a grouch, an anti-Semite, prone to sarcasm, a bit of a loner – he never married – and bearing an autocratic haughteur that befitted his upbringing.
Yet if Degas was a social conservative, as an artist he was a radical. And by his mid-thirties, he had left the imitatively reverential work of his earlier years far behind.
The new Royal Academy exhibition – Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement – features the aspect of his oeuvre for which he is most celebrated: his paintings of ballet dancers. They are, of course, of unfading charm and beauty, although in a way this concentration is a pity, for it neglects to show how much else he did – the ‘candid’ portraiture, and the cafe and racetrack studies. By focusing on ballet and movement, however, it does highlight the pioneering aspects of the artist’s work.
During Degas’s period, photographic technology was in its infancy, not yet ready to challenge painting as an art form. Cumbersome early cameras, with their slow exposure times, meant that the age of the Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive movement’, of Leica-led hand-held instantaneousness, was still many decades away. The single photograph was not yet a medium for describing movement. However, Degas intently studied the way the high-speed montages by photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge enabled the movements of the body in action to be closely examined as never before. Degas was to adapt the technique for his own processes of capturing movement.
This required immense intense concentration and observation from the artist. Degas was not trained in sculpture and thus, the exhibition tells us, he taught himself about body form and movement by making a series of drawings of a ballet student from different viewpoints, tracking round his subject like a human film camera – an effort of rigorous, time-consuming endeavour. Such was his reputation for this that by the 1880s, he was not only become famous as the artist who specialised in dancers but, it was said, was ‘curiously haunted and preoccupied by the figure in movement’.
Where photos of ballet from the mid-nineteenth century were artificial – the dancers standing in front of fake backgrounds, and with ropes used to help them to maintain stiff dance poses during the long exposure times – Degas’s meticulous processes of image creation enabled him to capture the moment, in a contemporary setting. Dancer Posing for a Photograph, for instance, shows the performer, arms aloft in the daintiest of poses, against a glazed studio window behind which are the rooftops of modern Paris. Dancer en Pointe features a dancer holding a pose sustainable only for a matter of seconds – again something virtually impossible for a camera of that period to show in a single exposure.
Photography was, though, able to emphasise spacial dimensions, and Degas was alive, as much as any artist of the time, to its potential in composition. An empty space on the canvas could be used for dramatic effect, as in Before the Ballet, for instance, where a third of the picture is merely empty floor.
Degas, great experimenter that he was, bought a camera himself and some of the pictures that he took can be seen in the show, which takes great pains to explain the links between photography and Degas’s technique. The detail is commendable, although you might find yourself wishing for more of the actual paintings.
All is redeemed in the last of the main rooms, however. Towards the end of his life, Degas’s eyesight was extremely poor, and the artist who was once such a regular attender of public dance performances, grew increasingly reclusive. He continued to work in his studio, though, recreating scenes from memory. Whereas the earlier works such as The Rehearsal so obviously reflectedsnapshots in the daily routine of ballet practice, the tone was now of the romanticised mood piece, and the old painter’s technique – often apparently using just his figures – and the rich pastel colours he employed make pieces such as Three Dancers, Dancers in Blue and Three Dancers in Violet Tutus visually exhilarating and other-worldly.
There is a poignant coda to the show. In his last few years, Degas, no longer able to paint, filled his time by wandering the streets of Paris or taking long rides on buses and trams. His reputation was still immense, nevertheless, and around 1915, the film director Sacha Guitry approached him concerning a documentary he was creating on eminent senior French artists. While Monet, Renoir and Rodin all agreed to participate, Degas – ever obstinate – refused, but the film maker, knowing of his daily perambulations, waited in secret for him with his camera. And so, in a precious few seconds of flickering black and white film, we see this grand old man, near blind and slow but still remarkably sturdy and upright in his immaculate suit and furled umbrella, walk unknowingly towards us – and off camera into history.
The man who, more than any 19th century artist perhaps, bridged the gap between fine art and film is caught in motion pictures for eternity.