Degas: Mainstream Mover

There is still a large part of this population, who look to art to be lovely, pleasant and (worse of all) nice. Thus to so many Degas is an easy favourite. I thought (until today) I was one of the masses (the masses queuing eager-eyed in the first week of the Degas and the Ballet show at the Royal Academy), but I left underwhelmed. Suddenly pleasantries have no interest to even a positivist such as myself. (This change of heart can no doubt be attributed to the Chapman Brothers and those of a similar ilk, whose controversial eye soaring installations are becoming the ever-so-comfortable furniture of the contemporary exhibition scene.) Does that mean Degas is becoming outdated? Or is he now officially mainstream (certainly what he wasn’t in his day)? Maybe…

Naturally, I have no doubt that the Royal Academy (especially at the price it costs to enter) is going to do well from this exhibition. For everyone likes Degas, just like everyone likes Da Vinci. (Don’t get me started on the unfounded obsession people world-wide have with the Mona Lisa.) This exhibition title was a tactical choice because it is the loveliest theme of Degas’ art. Our men are yet to be dissuaded by Degas, even though this exhibition is literally just about ballet. (I had assumed this was just a generalisation, and that there would be a little something more to it…) But apparently, Degas really was that dedicated to dancers, (aka part-time prostitutes…) Now there’s a not-so pleasantry that wasn’t highlighted by this polite exhibition.

So what are my objections to this exhibition? Firstly, that dreary, ‘atmospheric’ lighting that weighs down on the art and its viewers as though surreptitiously lulling us into a sleep. Isn’t the point of an exhibition to shed light on the artist and the art being exhibited; whether it is via new research, a unique collection of pieces, or a fresh approach to the art? This lighting made looking at Degas’ art too closely a constant strain. Yet this is why we see art first-hand – to be able to study its materiality.

Secondly, the nature of his art is actually that you don’t need to spend a long time looking. Degas caught a scene just like that… Faces with ease – the eye hinted at by only an eye socket – realism in just an echo. You needn’t stare endlessly to realise these are nice, well-executed pieces. They are all a bit shallow, and we are shallow for loving them.

Thirdly, there’s the fact that each picture exhibited is scarcely different from the one before. There’s not a whole lot of movement that occurs across the exhibition, which is of course massively ironic. The problem then is that there is a failure to shed new light on the artist – this is not an original collection of pieces. I found the concept of the show in itself unimaginative. It’s just all Degas’ paintings, prints, photographs, and sculptures with the word dancer in its title somewhere – some more flexible than others.

My experience of the artist doesn’t sit with this exhibition comfortably. Degas was a voyeuristic bachelor obsessed with women, not really with movement. It’s all a cover up – ‘his ballet scenes were a pretext for depicting movement’ – really? I think they’ve missed the real Degas, caught up in the universal niceties, that is what they want to see in him. Consequently what I knew before this exhibition – that he painted a lot of dancers – is the same as what I know after it. And in the 1880s, they already knew him as the painter of dancers. The curators have put on an exhibition for the masses that is entirely comprehensive and cohesive, but just not at all astounding.

So here’s my conclusion of Degas from this exhibition. There’s nothing wrong with him (apart from an unhealthy obsession with ballerinas.) There’s nothing wrong with his art – it is terribly pleasing. It’s just not captivating – not anymore anyway. Not when you see so much of it, and not under such dark lights.

But, Degas was a fine practitioner. He taught himself to sculpt very well, his photographs are really rather good when he again had no tuition in this area. He drew the human form with barely a part out of proportion, or a limb out of place. He knew always where to put a highlight to lift a whole piece and to create an atmosphere of light itself. He executed textures in almost any medium to great success; making the net of a tutu as believable as a 17th century Dutch realist could, with a brushstroke as indistinct as it could be. He proved (most notable in the final room, entitled ‘Colour and Dynamism’) that he understood colour – how one complimentary could elevate another, how two could be blended by the eye, and how shadows could be warm as well as cool. It’s just a shame, that the results of all his efforts, and the conclusion of his great talent, is a show that cuts little deeper than the sensation of being faintly charmed.



Article published on The Student Journals

If you fancy it, you’ve got until 11 December to see Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy. Student tickets are £9.

One Response to “Degas: Mainstream Mover”
  1. artmusette says:

    Hi there! This is a really interesting perspective to take on such an exhibition…
    How can one truly fault Degas as, after all, he IS Degas… but I agree with you in that the manner in which some of these artists are presented these days are very uninspiring, predictable even. Thank you for following my blog, look forward to reading more of your writing.

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