Edgar Degas: depicting movement in art

By Cressida Smart

A few weeks ago, I visited Living as Form, an international project in New York, surveying more than 350 socially engaged projects. One of the exhibitors gave visitors the opportunity to pick a headline from a recent copy of the New York Times which would then be printed on a t-shirt. I leafed through the provided copies and chose “Lines that kept moving and knew no boundaries”, which was the headline for Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition at the Frick Collection.

This moving quotation aptly describes Picasso’s drawings, but for me, I was instantly reminded of ballet. Anyone who has danced or watched ballet can understand the magnificent lines that are created spurred on by the intricate movements. A dancer aims to create a line that continues past the tip of the fingers into the unknown. It seemed appropriate, then, that during my brief visit to London, one of my first stops would be to see Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy of Art.

The 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. It aims to offer an insight into the process of how Degas viewed and recorded the movement of dance and dancers.

This superb collection situates Edgar Degas‘ work within the context of the development of photography and the moving image. In doing so, it confirms how the idea and reality of movement were central to his concerns as an artist. The visitor is offered a brilliant series of insights into how one man spent a lifetime meditating upon the mysteries of movement, time, memory and representation. It is a visual and conceptual experience of the highest order.

Degas was the most technically accomplished and supremely radical of all the 19th-century artists who responded to Baudelaire‘s call for a “painter of modern life”; one who would find an appropriate means of expressing the defining characteristics of the modern urban experience. This art would be defined in part by “the transient, the fleeting and the contingent”, and in part by “the eternal and the immovable”. In other words, a paradoxical conjunction of the vital quality of lived experience and the inevitable stillness of the painted surface.

The ballet allowed Degas to paint the contemporary whilst keeping company with the artists of the past whom he revered so much, and who represented for him the eternal quality of art. When asked to explain his fascination with the ballet, Degas answered: “Because I find there the complex movement of the Greeks.” The Greeks, as Degas well knew, had mastered the art of organising the flowing rhythms of limbs and garments to suggest the full potential of a body moving through space and time.

Developments in photography had shown artists the new possibilities of capturing time in a single, static image. Degas and his colleagues entered into a prolonged creative and competitive dialogue with this new technical process and exulted in the possibilities it offered them. Artists were liberated from the clichés of orthodox artistic practice and empowered to represent reality in new and vital ways. By the 1860s, instantaneous photography revealed those awkward moments when a body is caught mid-gesture, activating in the mind of the spectator the natural desire to bring that frozen movement to rest.

The shock of modern urban experience only intensified a perennial problem that painters have always had to face: how to represent movement in a convincing and aesthetically satisfying way. Degas’ works, above and beyond their extraordinary beauty and visceral power, are a deep and sustained questioning as to how this process operates. He moves from the almost scientific scrutiny of the “thing seen” to something much more generalised and ambiguous, without any loss of vitality. Any suggestion of randomness – the contingent, as Baudelaire would say – is illusory; Degas’ work is meticulously planned, a series of “operations”.

The Rehearsal (c.1874), for example, seems at first sight like a direct transcription of a single moment, caught as if snapped on a mobile phone. However, this seemingly chaotic ensemble is as artfully composed as any Renaissance painting. The impact of the silvery light, the breathtaking evocation of space and atmosphere, offer the viewer a virtual invitation au voyage. Degas’ wit and visual humour are evident in the startling presence of the spiral staircase, its geometric form suggestive of the anatomical structures of the dancers, but it also breaks the line of dancers and allows only a glimpse of another two registered by their feet alone. Such an achievement is the result of superlative technical skill but also great intellectual engagement: the room pictured here had burned down a few years before.

Another early example of his technical mastery is his Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert Le Diable (1876). The viewer is placed among the audience who, along with the orchestra immediately in front, are depicted in high definition, while above them on the stage the ghosts of dead nuns engage in their provocative dance – a blur of light and movement.

Degas’ knowledge is grounded in drawing and in his practice of making wax models, integral to his art, a number of which were cast in bronze after his death. Along with Rembrandt, he possesses the uncanny ability of seeming to inhabit the bodies he draws, paints and models. This can be seen in all his works, but the studies and drawings that are placed around the bronze of the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (1880-81) reveal the core of his obsessive practice.

Degas was relentless in his examination and exploration of the female body. As he grew older and his sight worsened, so the artificial nature of his practice became ever more apparent and the ballet, increasingly, a mere pretext to pursue his private concerns. These late works, in their sumptuous colour and encrusted surfaces, in the massiveness of their eloquent but mysterious forms, are far from the quasi-documentary exploration of the ballet encountered in the earlier works. Spaces and anatomical precision grow increasingly ambiguous, as line and colour intermingle to create surfaces of extraordinary sensual and expressive power.

Degas’ drawings and paintings reveal a lifetime’s relentless scrutiny of the body in motion or poised between movements: the weight, balance and grace of the human form – and its essential instability.

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