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A fine balance: Degas and the art of ballet

September 8, 2011

The ballet pictures of Edgar Degas were the laboratory for the painter’s most daring ideas

The Rehearsal, by Degas

Master class … The Rehearsal is carefully composed and rigorously structured. Lent by Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City

Edgar Degas and ballet dancers is one of the great painterly partnerships, like Monet and lilies, Gauguin and Tahiti, or Lucian Freud and naked flesh. The world of the ballet, and in particular of the Paris Opera Ballet, was Degas’s specialist subject, as well as the source of materials for his most popular and lucrative lines. Indeed it is impossible to think of him without thinking of floorboards and tutus, the endlessly reproduced Etoile of 1876/7, for instance, soaking up the applause with an elegant curtesy at the edge of the stage, or one of the many “Dance-classes” where young girls strike poses for their ballet master, Jules Perrot.

Indeed during the first few years of my life, one of those Perrot paintings, now in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, was the sole representative of art in my little world, hung above the alcove in the sitting-room where I used to hide duringDoctor Who. For a while I confused the Perrot with Harold Wilson smoking a pipe, an association I have never been able completely to forget.

Because Degas was so familiar, because I felt over-exposed to his talent and therefore somewhat inured to his charms, I acknowledged rather than appreciated the greatness of his work; he was the impressionist for people who didn’t really like impressionists, the same prettiness but with line, structure and form, a brilliant draughtsman, yawn, a 19th-century classic. I even thought of missing the massive Degas retrospective that opened in New York in the winter of 1988, though it was not far from where I was living at the time; it would be uncomfortably crowded and Degas had not apparently been a very nice man, a grumbling grouch with a sarcastic wit in his early years, who evolved into an embarrassing antisemite.

I did go, however. It was crowded. And I was completely blown away. Degas didn’t just paint dancers, I discovered, he painted horses and washerwomen and milliners, and women getting awkwardly in and out of bathtubs, or combing their or some other girl’s hair. There were also some remarkable group portraits, of his relatives, the Belelli family, of the clerks in a New Orleans cotton exchange. Above all it was clear he was a risk-taker and an innovator. His compositions were daring and dynamic, combining radical foreshortenings and vast areas of “empty” space, Procrustean croppings and dangerous blockings of view, and an enormous variety of materials and techniques, greasy inks and essences – oil diluted with turps – powdery pinky pastels, plain old charcoal on bright green commercial paper or robin-egg blue, and all shapes and sizes, some huge some almost miniatures, some extremely elongated, some almost square. Some of the most extraordinary were fan-shaped.

Having been familiar with Degas for longer than I could remember, I now felt as if I had met him for the first time. Instead of merely acknowledging his genius, as a mark of my literacy and education, I recognised it, was overwhelmed by it.

The first effect of this conversion, however, was to split Degas in two: the ballet painter, endlessly reproduced, and the other Degas, the one I admired. It was only much later that I was able to see the ballet-pictures too as worthy of admiration, indeed as the laboratory for some of his most daring pictorial ideas.

Degas had started his career in the old fashioned way with life studies followed by trips to Italy and innumerable copyings of old masters. It was here that he refined his incomparable talent for drawing, but in his early years he was drawn to history painting – young SpartansSemiramis – and the dreamy style of symbolists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau. The turning point seems to have come with a startling painting of 1867 when he was in his mid-30s. A group of women in medieval-looking garb rest by a pool, the horse bows its head to drink, one of them plays a lute. It could almost be something from the studios of the pre-Raphaelites. But this is not some illustration of a legend, it is Mlle Fiocre in the ballet La Source, and therefore his first ballet picture, not that you would notice if the title didn’t give the game away. By taking one step back from the drama, by framing his frame, so to speak, with a proscenium arch, he had in one instant shifted from being a painter of historical fantasies to a painter of modern life.

Read more at: Degas and the art of ballet

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