I have always admired Degas’ work, not least because it centres on what many little girls dream about, frothy frocks and ballet. This exhibition of his paintings looked at both these things but also focussed on his passion for understanding and representing the nature of movement. It recorded, too, the discovery of photography and how this had an impact on his work.
Photo taken in Paris
Unknown to Degas at the time Etienne-Jules Marey, a scientist, was studying movement, from a scientific perspective and building his own cameras to record sequential photographes of such things as the flight patterns of birds.
Marey turned to sculpture to broaden his understanding of movement, his bronze of a series of movements of a gull ready for flight being the most beautiful example in my opinion.
Photography however also developed into a popular medium for recording a sitter from all angles, a technique later used by Degas, who decided to draw his models in a similar way. His wide use of sculpture helped to record the steps and movements of his dancers and was an important aspect of his work.
Degas made hundreds of tiny sculptures in his studio, purely for his own use as an artist. However ‘The little dancer’ became a work of art in its own right. It was originally made in wax and he used a model who was just 14 years, not really pretty or from a privileged background, but a young girl determined to succeed.
Degas’ work is full of experimentation, including using charcoal on tracing paper and, in later life, using pastel on layers of tracing paper to add depth to his dancers in the more colourful costumes that attracted him at that time.
This exhibition was about science and photography as much as it was about Degas’ work. and I must admit I enjoyed a similar exhibition in Paris a few years ago, as much if not more. One of the many sculptures of ‘The little dancer’ was on display there, apparently there are many versions of this figure, the wax original is in New York.
The French, it would appear, are less concerned about photography in their galleries than we are, or I would never have been allowed to take this picture of a another version of the same dancer.
By the way, I ended up taking two of my teenage grandsons to Degas at the RA on different occasions. Neither were to be hurried and enjoyed it. I think the science and the camera aspects may have helped. So don’t underestimate teenagers! One is keen on motor bikes and the other is an avid computer game player.