Saturday 26 September 2020


Royal Academy 17 Sept – 11 Dec 2011

This one is going up so late that some say Degas himself attended the opening. But, after looking at the movement in general and then Monet it serves to conclude our series about Impressionism. (For now, at least.)

Don’t Just Stand There...

If you want to know whether this theme fits better than the one the National came up with for Monet, Google-image his name and see what comes up. Degas painted the ballet over two hundred times. But, while ballet developed in parallel step with Modernism his was the classic ‘ballet blanc’ everyone thinks of, all women dancers in white tutus. 

Though if, like me, you care not for all this prancing and pirouetting that will mar your enjoyment of this exhibition not one iota. We learn, unsurprisingly, that the man himself was a fan. But that isn’t the real reason why he returned to painting it so often...

We tend to associate ballet with traditional painting because… well, they’re both traditional. They tend to use the same classical subject matter. But Degas isn’t at all interested in attempts to evoke myth, or conjure up the theatrical illusion and all of that. When he paints dancers he tends to paint everything else around them, the curtains, the footlights, all the paraphernalia we’re supposed to tune out as soon as the house lights go down. 

He’ll paint the theatre flats as flats, as painted boards. He’d show the performers through the audience with all their protruding hats, and the upturned necks of the instruments. His ballet was not some rarified world of great artistry, it’s placed squarely in this world. Look for example at the deliberately unconvincing backdrop and that expanse of bare board in ’Two Dancers On the Stage’ (1874, below). The work’s used for the poster image (up top), where they crop it down to centralise the figures, cut back on the boards and generally make it more conventional.

But most of the time he painted not the show but the rehearsals. Girls were often shown resting or simply hanging about. Which is most of ballet’s associations swept away in one fell swoop. What can be afoot?

Let us not get too romantic here, for one motivation was that they sold. In 1873 he found his family fortune had been squandered by his brother, and so was suddenly and rather forcibly introduced to the concept of earning a living. But he could only have found out their saleability after he started painting them. 

In case we missed it hidden away in the name of this show the very first information board tell us they were “a pretext for depicting movement.” If there’s one thing you can rely on with ballet dancers, its for them to not stand still all that much.

And Degas excelled at his chosen task. Finished artwork all too often looks like the embalmed corpse of the original sketch. Here his paintings and sketches are sometimes hung side by side, with no significant loss of life from one to the other. Yet he’d had the conventional art training of his time, when attentive figure drawing was so drilled into you it became a rote task. Breaking from this was one of his greatest achievements.

Dispute hangs over whether Degas should be considered an Impressionist, and (by extension) a Modernist. It’s true he began as a more conventional painter and always rejected the term himself. (Though he exhibited at all but one of their group shows.) Some of the things we think of as essentially Impressionist, such as painting outdoors, he actively mocked, declaring the police should prevent such things. 

His interest in depicting scenes, windows upon environments which you easily imagine extending beyond the confines of the frame, seems at odds with one of Modernism's most basic tenets – that paintings are primarily paintings, coloured pigment on canvas. If Monet was moving in that direction, Degas’ back is firmly turned against it. Yet in his interest in movement he was being modern. Motion wasn’t a fidgety model, a problem to be overcome, but a force to be evoked.

When Edmond de Goncourt said of him “He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know” the ‘essence’ he refers to is movement. The conceit is that movement captured in an artwork conveys a society on the move. It might sound reductive said out loud. Yet we should remember two things. 

First, the most direct idea is often the most effective. Second, these times are not ours. Some of the technological innovations were specifically about accelerating movement, such as trains. But they weren’t really the galvanising force, and Degas himself was often blimpishly disdainful of them. (The show ends with a brief film-clip of him, taken towards the end of his life. But he’d actually refused permission, and had to be surreptitiously shot on the street.) The point was that a society that had seemed primarily concerned with tradition was now all about progress. And withsociety itself constantly on the move, art had to be in a perpetual state of motion just to keep up.

But was this really all that new? After all, art has never confined itself to static scenes. In fact it's previous role as illustrational (of classical myths or Bible stories) precluded that. Nor did progress start in Degas' day. We now see the Nineteenth Century as stuffy, pompous gents parading round in starched shirts. Yet they saw themselves as stewards of a modern world.

However, compare Degas to Ford Madox Brown's 'Work' (1852/62). Brown places his industrious navvies at the centre of his composition, digging their way to a bold future. But, while he might depict movement, he does this without any particular attempt to capture it. You can picture clear as day the models holding the poses. (“I holds the shovel up like this, Mr. Brown, sir?”) Moreover, the sheer teeming accumulation of figures he loads onto the canvas work against any sense of individual motion. Our brains are too busy assembling them all into the visual equivalent of a sentence.

Brown's work is instructive, his figures a means to get across his point about progress coming through hard work and industry, and the result is a tableau more than it is a scene. While Degas is primarily descriptive. He seeks to capture a moment, to show rather than tell. And it's this distinction which allows him to make movement his focus.

And so the shows’ main thesis, that the spur to his art was developments in photography, is effectively looking in the wrong place through being so specific. In 1875 he painted the seemingly telling ’Dancer Posing For a Photograph’(above), but was known for mischievous humour. He didn’t buy a camera himself until 1895, after most of the works here had already been created. His photographs are hung in the show, with suitable reverence. And they’re entirely unexceptional, documentation at best. Moreover, I’d suspect his relationship with photography was more complex than suggested, more like a tempestuous love affair, forever blowing hot and cold.

All In the Moment

Last time we looked at Monet’s gift for compositions which at a glance seemed casual while being quitely accomplished, which gives his work an involving sense of verisimilitude. Degas may go one better, he can seemingly go wrong and still make it right. Like Dolly Parton saying “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, Degas invested a great deal of time and effort into this. Unlike Monet he tended to paint indoor scenes, with the figures spread in a seemingly haphazard fashion. 

And yet (also unlike Monet) he didn’t tend to paint whole scenes as they lay before him. He’d sketch figures simply or in small groups, which he’d refer to as his ‘cast list’, then later combine them into compositions. So nothing you see on the canvas is incidental, everything deliberately placed. 

So, for example, in ’The Rehearsal’ (1874, above) he has decided both to crop off all but half of the right-most figure, and to stick a spiral staircase in front of the figures to the left, with one poor soul left with only their feet showing. The solid walls, floors and (here) stairs, just emphasise the fleeting movement of the figures, like rocks in a flowing stream. 

The effect is like those faux-found-footage movies, all the usual signs which keep you distances from the work are eroded. We feel we are peering into a room, perhaps through a door temporarily left ajar. We get a sense of the bustle going on, a world in flux. But open the door to an actual room like that and at first it rears at you; you need a second to make sense of it, like the eye adjusting to sudden gloom. Whereas Degas never leaves us confused by what we see. 

Monet would paint like he was staring straight at the sun, it’s light dissolving the seeming solidity of all objects. While Degas’ light permeates through closed blinds. That indirect, shuttered light seems as signature to him as the pale, wan light was to Vermeer. He had said “the intriguing thing is not to show the source of the light but the effect of the lighting.” It’s like their art was passing by oblivious to one another, Monet enthusiastically capturing the outdoors while Degas’ realm is dark and hermetic. (On his death he was found to have amassed a seizable art collection which included not a single Monet.)

Slightly later he came to employ elongated, letterbox-shaped canvases. Inside which he would rarely build a composition up the classic way, radiating out from a central object, but pull the eye across - from lower right to upper left. The result is that the eye itself moves, to take the composition in, and feels itself doing so.

See for example ‘The Dance Lesson’ (1879, above). Against the subdued tones of the background he uses what’s effectively spot colour to lead the eye. The bright orange of the left-most figure is like the capital letter of a sentence, leading to the softer pink on the second seated figure, ending with a smaller splash of orange at the upper right. And like a sentence the spaces are as much part of the work. As Adrian Searle said in the GuardianDegas understood emptiness, the space between things, the pauses and breaks.”

Fond of provocation, he liked to play his efforts at composition up in his rhetoric as much as he played it down in his art. He’d insist “there is nothing less spontaneous than my art”, that “a painting is an artificial world existing outside of nature, and requires as much cunning as the perpetration of a crime.”

Girls At Work

The day I visited, two young girls were mimicking the poses of the dancers. A charming sight, but of course leading you to suspect they were from the leafier parts of London. Whereas in Degas’ day ballet dancers were commonly referred to as “ballet rats”, scarcely more respectable than actresses or prostitutes. And by constantly returning to their rehearsals Degas emphasises how much a workplace this was. Some look not inspired to leap and dance but slumped and exhausted, their heads in their hands. His ceaseless foregrounding of bare floorboards recalls the phrase ‘factory floor’.

These were ‘working girls’, the most plentiful category in a whole group of paintings Degas made of working girls. Debra N Macoff wrote of them in ’Art Quarterly’ (Autumn 2011):

Two other subjects showing women in motion also held Degas’s attention – laundresses and milliners... these women enacted a contemporary, real-life performance of posture and gesture, honed through repetitive actions and motivated by their need to earn a wage. Degas’s laundresses and milliners share a bond with his dancers. They were all working women, moving to the rhythms of modern life.”

(Truth to tell, working women would have made for a more varied and more effective subject than ballet. But still, as said, better than some of the stuff done over Monet. So let’s stick here to what the Academy served us.)

With all these paintings being of women it would be appealing to try and take some proto-feminist reading, that we’re dealing with some Great Aunt prototypes of Rosie the Riveter. It’s true that unlike, say, the Pre-Raphaelites he is painting women with a place in the world, whereas their interest was all in their supposed other-worldliness. But we’d simply be kidding ourselves. 

The Impressionist method was to paint simply what you saw, not stuff their works with references and allusions to be picked up by the cognoscenti. So it is often associated with progressive politics. Degas on the other hand came from a moneyed, conservative background and matched a curmudgeonly temperament with notoriously reactionary views. He became increasingly anti-semitic, stretching even the standards of his day, and sacking Jewish models. His stance over the Dreyfus affair, infamously divisive, something of the Brexit of the time, drove many former friends away form him.

And if he painted these women with a place in the world, it was in their accustomed place. Look how frequently he paints Dance Masters, stock-still and commanding, custodians of social order. They’re not always as prominent as the stick-wielding figure in ’The Dance Class’ (1897, below), you may take a moment to spot him in ’The Rehearsal’, but he’s rarely far away.

The most likely reason for painting so many women was it was the safest means to depict the workers. A muscular male arm raised in labour might as easily raise in revolt. Yet women were then seen as the weaker sex. Not necessarily just physically, the prospect of such a flouting of the natural order as working women rising in revolt seemed more remote and so less concerning. (If you’re wondering whether it worked out that way in practice go to the back of the class.) Working women allowed Degas a way to enter the world of the poor, with the least risk the poor could do the same back to him.

Where the Action Isn’t

Degas was sometimes in the habit of adding finishing touches of pastel to his sketches. By the end of the 1870s these became larger and more composed, the pastel strokes filling them, blurring the line between preparatory work and the finished object. Like the sketches, the pastels mostly reject the landscape format of the oils for portrait. Like the sketches, the pastels they laid less emphasis on the environments the figures were in.

But rather than coming to dominate the frame the figures instead look isolated. The paradox is that these works are brighter yet less dynamic. See for example ’Two Dancers at Rest’ (1898, above). Another, not included in this show, is tellingly titled ‘Waiting’ (1880/2.) This is Degas’ cast list not being cast, stuck on the subs’ bench, perhaps in perpetuity. The master of movement is now in the business of denying activity to his subjects.

Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ (1966) is said to have been inspired by the lives of bit-part players, who spend more time awaiting their cues form the wings than on-stage. He focused on two minor characters from Shakespeare, leading a life both purgatorial and absurdist, marginalised from events, not only failing to bring any influence but unable to grasp the plot of the drama they’re in. 

And there’s a similar feeling to many of Degas’ pastels. It seems an inherent feature of perception that wherever you are it feels like here, just like the time is always now. But these figures are where the action isn’t, fated to live in a perpetul off-stage, banished to liminal space.

There were biographical reasons for this. Degas had never been life’s cheeriest soul and, counter to the joie de vivre spirit usually associated with Impressionism, had always had a melancholic streak. He painted the decidedly un-upbeat ‘The Absinth Drinker’ (1876) and even titled another work ’Melancholy’ (1874).

But he’d became more reclusive, through a negative feedback loop of souring disposition and worsening eyesight. (Some suggest these eye problems precipitated his move from oil to pastel.) And the story lacks a happy ending. His eyesight and reclusiveness worsened, until he’d managed to antagonise almost everyone he once knew.

But the downward trajectory has a bump in it for, with ’Russian Dancers’ (1899, above) the dance is back! They were inspired by a ‘Russian’ (actually Ukrainian) dance troupe performing in Paris. But the work has no sense of staginess to it. These could be real peasant dancers, in their home environment, and dancing not for Dance Masters but the sheer joy of it! Rather than be confined in their pictorial space one kicks out left and the other right, as if they can barely be contained by the frame. Perhaps they’re the note to go out on...

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