Degas @ Royal Academy

Movement was the focus for this season’s Degas centered exhibition at the Royal Academy. Photography and film showed spectators a previously unthought-of and unexplored influence into the artist of the dance. An array of original film is spread all over this exhibition, which you are greeted to by the silhouette of a single ballerina in a dimly lit room.

Whilst Degas will always be famous for his portrayal of the ballet dancers, one can take away from this exhibition that he was not solely inspired by the antics of the dancers of the Paris Opéra. The impressionists were painters of modern life and it is clear that Degas was not afraid to paint the controversial dancers from questionable backgrounds with wanton morals. Yet it seems that not only was he interested in the dancers, but the technology that was beginning to emerge during this era. Degas himself rejected the term impressionist, and favored the term realist, which could stem from the birth of the camera. He was acquainted with Etienne-Jules Marey, a French scientist, and Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer, both of whom used the technology to research movement of humans and animals, capturing minute actions, up to 24 small movements or rotations on one page. Degas himself would continue to imitate, showing the movements of the ballerinas’ limbs on one single sheet of paper. These studies, concentrated around the idea of movement, would become the basis of his sculpture, and adds to the liveliness of the pieces, most notably Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, with the cast bronze version on display. Also on display are complete series of sculptures, showing the movements of the dancers’ arabesques in various stages, often three at a time.

Though a vast amount of photography and film from the most prominent innovators of the time are very well exhibited and a clear history on the subject is offered to us, a disappointingly low number of Degas’ own photographs are on display. In fact I personally found Degas’ own photography the most striking out of all that was on display. The artist’s photographs of a dancer adjusting the straps on her dress are rather captivating, despite the simplicity of the black and white the contrast between the light and dark is astonishing and you are left wanting more of what is not available.

Of course, being a Degas exhibition, the Royal Academy did also display countless studies and works showing in depth lives of the dancers from backstage to warm-ups. We are teased with studies in an array of media including charcoal, chalk, pencil, pastel and oil. It seemed almost comforting to have the standard images of dance rehearsals in an exhibition exploring an unexpected route. However, we are still shown an emphasis on the idea of movement, studies portraying un-rubbed limbs several times before putting more strength on the best line, giving a sense of movement.

Whilst I cannot deny that this was a brilliant exhibition, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. I feel that there was too much emphasis on film and perhaps there could have been more stress on Degas’ other influences. For example, beautiful fans inspired by Japan are exhibited, but only two have been shown. Though many comparisons could be seen as a little far fetched, it is worthwhile seeing nonetheless, a traditional exhibition with a twist.

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is open at the Royal Academy of Arts until 11 December

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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