We think we know what Impressionism is all about. Bar girls and boulevards with a bit of countryside thrown in. We almost certainly don’t associate it with the explosion of scientific discovery which ran parallel to the period in which the Impressionists were working. This landmark exhibition, centred on the human figure and the way it moves, gives us a new perspective on the work of one of their number.
Born in Paris in 1834 to a wealthy family, Hilaire Germain-Edgar Degas studied briefly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then travelled in Italy, teaching himself art by copying works in churches and museums. After submitting historical works to the Salon, he began, around 1870, to concentrate on subjects from modern life including the dance. It’s his dance-based work with which this exhibition is concerned. What outstanding material does it feature?
‘The Rehearsal’ (c.1874) shows a light, airy room where the scene radiates an air of organised chaos: some dancers are dancing whilst others are sitting around and chatting, waiting to be put through their particular paces. In the later ‘The Rehearsal Room’ (c.1905), the dancers are shown with jagged movements, emphasising that they need to rehearse and familiarise themselves with the work in hand, a far-from-smooth process. ‘Two Dancers on the Stage’ (c.1874) shows them dancing as individuals, yet they are somehow almost locked together in the precision demanded by the piece they are performing. The concept of teamwork - deadened with overuse by present-day management consultants – comes alive on the canvas.
In ‘Dancers’ (c.1899) the dancers here are depicted with less detail, yet their onstage movements are more vibrant - the hard work of the rehearsal room has paid off as they are infused with the spirit of the particular ballet they are performing. The onstage life of the dancers has its pay-off in the form of fame, but Degas reminds us that when it is derived from the arts it depends on hard work in a real day-to-day setting: ‘Dancer Posing for a Photograph’ (1875) shows us a dancer who, instead of posing in a the customary artificial setting is, instead, in a room through whose windows can be seen a view of Paris, the city in which she earns her precarious livelihood.
But, lest we think that dance is all about glamour, Degas gives us two pictures to remind us of the sweat and pain of the rehearsal room. ‘Dancer at The Barre’ (1877) is a pencil sketch which shows us a dancer with her body bent forward whilst her right leg is raised at full extension along the length of the barre whilst ‘Study of Legs’ (c.1873) shows us dancers’ feet in various positions. Both remind us of the unremitting physical and mental labour involved in dance, the strain running through the dancers’ limbs, the sheer hard work of applying not just the body but also the mind to master quickly the speedy complexities of choreography.
But Degas’ work gives us more than a peek at the backstage world of the dance (more of that in a moment). It shows us the human body in motion, and it parallels the work of studying human movement then being done in photography by the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey and the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge. We see photographic work by Marey showing, viewed sideways-on, a moving human male. We also see a zoöpraxiscope. Invented by Muybrige, this elegant wooden object is an early device for displaying motion pictures, and was used for showing pictures of human movement.
There is, of course, nothing new about art and science working along the same lines - think of Leonardo da Vinci using his artistic skills in conjunction with his interest in the natural world and the possibilities of science. But by the period in which Degas was working there was probably - arguably due to the influence of Romanticism - more than a temptation to see them as opposites. Science was regarded as cold and logical,with art being primarily about emotional expression: as CP Snow would discover in the following century, any suggestion that the two cultures of science and art should get to know each other better was regarded in artistic circles as anathema. But Degas was aware of - and took an interest in – the scientific study of the human body which was in progress during his lifetime.
The works in this exhibition show Degas’ attempts to try and capture the workings of the skin and bone which are the raw material of human movement. But it also raises questions about Degas, sex and the ‘male gaze’. The dancers he depicted often came from poor backgrounds and some were assumed to have loose morals. Any fame garnered by these dancers came at a price, paid in terms of the bedroom or personal reputation. As a result, Degas has sometimes been regarded as a sort of dirty old man who used art as an excuse for hanging round backstage to view young, vulnerable girls. The exhibition shows his painted bronze, muslin and silk statue ‘The little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’ (1880-1, cast c.1922) a work which, if it were produced by an artist today, would probably earn him or her a drubbing from the tabloids if not a visit from the police. But, for Degas, ballet dancers were simply a source of study for depicting movement.
(That being said, Degas wasn’t particularly good at human relationships, but then the artistic world is not noted for its large number of happy, emotionally well-balanced practitioners. And, if he had wished to indulge in sexual fantasies, would he have chosen for his activities a branch of the arts - dance - whose dark side was common knowledge?)
Moreover, much of Impressionism can arguably be seen as a sort of unconscious morale-raising exercise. For, buried deep in the French collective mind at the time the Impressionists were working, were the events of 1870-71: France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war followed by the Paris commune and its aftermath - experiences which were to dominate the French national psyche, and politics, for almost a century. Such an outlook - if it existed – may have somehow slipped into the mind of Degas, helping to render his depiction of attractive-looking girls as chocolate-boxy rather than sinister.
This last is speculation. What we certainly do have here is Impressionism which is far removed from the supposedly naughty-but-nice world of Parisian street life in the last quarter of the 19th century. Like a scientist with a specimen under the lens of his microscope, Degas takes, and examines, the hard world of the dance to elucidate the beauty and workings of the human form. This exhibition invites us to do the same.