The last time the Royal Academy put on a big show, it was Van Gough’s Letters, which drew crowds of epic proportions. I, foolishly, was too “busy” to attend the press view. With a similar turnout expected, there was no way I was going to miss the Degas preview.
The entrance sets the stage perfectly, with a dramatic, darkened room. Shadows of ballerinas float on the walls, in a scene not unlike the tiny plastic dancers doing endless pirouettes atop musical jewellery boxes in little girls’ bedrooms.
While Edgar Degas, a leader of the Impressionists, did paint other subjects: racehorses and bathing women, as the title suggests, this exhibit focuses on Degas’ obsession with dancers, both in rehearsal and on stage.
Ten galleries create a retrospective of Degas’ work, including a variety of media, from charcoal to chalk, pencil to pastel, traditional oil, sculpture and even photography.
Both celebrated and little-known works are represented. One of Degas’ most famous works, Little Dancer, the sculpture of a 14-year old ballerina, with a faded, tulle tutu, and a plucky face, hair pulled back into an ivory string of silk, is on display, as well as his first forays into photography. One fine example of Degas’ embrace of technology is a gelatin dry plate negative against a burnt sunset orange tone of a dancer, with her arm outstretched. It doesn’t look like a work of art from the late 19th century, but rather more modern.
The show ends with the deterioration of Degas and some of the pastels he drew towards the end of his life. While more blurred, and less technically perfect than his other works, these are no less compelling.
Die-hard Degas fans or ballet enthusiasts will want to combine a visit with any one of the free gallery talks, lunchtime lectures, workshops, or programmes held in collaboration with the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. Check the Royal Academy’s website for details.
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement
Royal Academy of Art
Sponsored by BNY Mellon and Supported by Region Holdings and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.