Degas is a pretty safe bet for modern audiences; everyone loves a bit of Degas. Along with his Impressionist contemporaries, Monet and Renoir, reproductions of his painting are the go-to decoration for hospital walls, old people’s homes and slightly out-dated cheap hotels. For an exhibition to present such a popular artist in a new light, then, and to remind us that he was a controversial artist in his time, is quite a feat, and one that the Royal Academy pulls off well.
The first room you walk into is dark, with three big dramatic screens playing black and white films of the silhouette of a dancer rotating in an arabesque. This sets the scene for a rather unconventional exhibition which focuses on Degas’ obsession with the movement of the body and the human form. It mixes his own work with old film reels of nineteenth century ballet performances and photographs and sculptures by his contemporary scientists and photographers, trying to document patterns in the movement of dance and the flight of birds. With so many of Degas’ charcoal and pencil sketches on display, it was very obvious that he was trying over and over again to capture the movement of a split second. He had to work quickly, and in a lot of the pictures you can see faint sketches of arms and legs in slightly different positions, leaving a trail of movement like a slow-lense captured photograph.
I went to see the exhibition with my ballet dancer friend, which made the experience even more interesting. She said the ballet dancers’ poses, the way they held their arms and legs, looked almost sloppy compared to modern standards. This was probably mostly because they were all wearing tight corsets that restricted their movements, as well as the fact that their point shoes didn’t have blocks in them, making it a lot more painful to balance on tiptoe. It also showed the impact that the development of good quality photography had on dance: knowing your every movement could be perfectly captured forever, you naturally work harder on looking picture perfect every second of the dance. Because Degas captured dancers in natural, off-guard positions, he presents the modern ballet expert with a fascinating record of how balletic technique has evolved over the years.
The queue was out of the door, and the exhibition was crowded, but somehow it didn’t feel claustrophobic. Some of the rooms had so much empty space in the middle that they reflected the empty floorboards of the rehearsal spaces in Degas’ paintings. I felt like I should have done some pirouettes or something across them.