Was Edgar Degas a Photorealist? New London Show Explores the Technological Side of His Dancers

Edgar Degas famously said that painting dancers was a "pretext for depicting movement." "Degas and the Ballet," which opens today at the Royal Academy, is an in-depth study of the impressionist’s fascination with ballerinas' peculiar physiognomy and their fleeting gestures. Gathering 85 paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, it covers almost 40 years of the artist's production from the mid-1870s onward and maps the parallels between his work and the great invention of the 19th Century: photography. "What we are trying to do," says co-curator Jill DeVonyar, "is explore the subject that Degas and photography shared, which is capturing movement."

Degas wasn't solely interested in the precisely choreographed steps of the official performances. He often preferred to picture dancers — Paris's famous "petits rats de l'Opera" (Little opera rats) — in their "natural habitat," the rehearsal rooms in which they practiced for months for a few minutes of perfection. Degas's most touching dancers aren't in full glory; they sit on the floor and wear a gaudy woolen shawl like the left-behind figure in "The Dance Lesson" (1978). They might also have their gauzy tutu adjusted by a stern old lady wearing a black bonnet like in "The Rehearsal" (1874). They are startlingly young, tired, the mere ammunition of a proto-showbiz machine that would swallow them up and spit them out long before their twentieth birthday.

Looking at these images, one can't help but notice a latent feeling of lust, the timid adoration of an older man for teenagers in the intimacy of their training classes. "Was Degas a voyeur?" I asked exhibition curator Richard Kendall. "This has been much discussed," he answers. "There's no simple answer to it. He was a middle-class man with impeccable manners. And as far as we know, throughout his career, there wasn't a single incident where he behaved improperly with a ballerina in public. On the other hand, he never married and we know he had a couple of affairs with dancers, which is not surprising — that was commonplace."

"People have accused Degas of being a misogynist because his images of dancers are so ugly," continues co-curator DeVonyar. "They look distorted, contorted. He's not celebrating the dancer as a performer. Degas was very audacious in representing the realities of backstage life. What intrigued him as much as the performers is the hard work, the practice, the stretching, the sweating and the hours of labor."

In the theater, harshly lit by the limelight, some of Degas's dancers acquire an almost clownish quality. The faces of his "Two Dancers on Stage" (1874) are smeared in a bright yellow hue; they turn into masks. In "Dancer on Pointe" (1878), it is the interaction between the performer and her background that the painter investigates. She's on her toes, holding a pose so difficult that it can only last for a few seconds, the sweeping brushes suggesting the forward movement to come. She's a sylvan nymph emanating from the painted leafy décor and about to disappear in the breeze.  

A whole room dedicated to the 1880s "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" stands at the heart of the exhibition and articulates the parallel between Degas's work and contemporary photographic experiments. The bronze statue of the ballerina is surrounded by drawings showing the model — ballet student Marie van Goethem — from more than 20 different viewpoints. The artist literally circled around her, taking in every single facet of her pose. His approach bears similarities with the process of "photosculpture" invented by fellow Frenchman François Willème, also presented in the exhibition. It involved a subject being photographed from all sides by 20 cameras in order to create a 3D rendition, a technique which became particularly popular around Degas's time.

Degas was born in 1834, as photography was being invented. "Photography was so much part of the age," says DeVonyar. "It was ubiquitous, like television today." And though reticent at first, Degas couldn't ignore it — he even bought a camera in 1895. The show has a few of his shots including a thoughtful self-portrait. It also has impressive displays dedicated to Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, and their relentless efforts to analyze and immortalize movement — efforts which, as Degas claimed, were at the very heart of his practice.