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October 04 2012

Edgar Degas – The Late Work at Fondation Beyeler

The exhibition Edgar Degas – The Late Work at Fondation Beyeler in Riehen (Switzerland) is the first show that is devoted exclusively to Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) late work. It features more than 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings, pastels, prints, and photographs of the famous French artist, and explores in detail the richness of the artist’s achievement in this phase of his career. After the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Edgar Degas turned his back on the art world, and began to fundamentally change his style. The principal subjects were ballet dancers and female nudes, jockeys and racehorses, landscapes and portraits, which he depicted in ever new variations and combinations.

Edgar Degas – The Late Work at Fondation Beyeler is curated by Martin Schwander in collaboration with Michiko Kono. The exhibition runs until January 27, 2013. Edgar Degas – The Late Work / Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel (Switzerland). Opening reception, September 29, 2012.

PS: A video with an introduction to the exhibition with Martin Schwander is coming soon.

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June 29 2012

Impressionism, Degas and Shepard Fairey – the week in art

The French avant garde storm London's Royal Academy, plus shows from Peter Blake and Mark Wallinger, Olympic posters and Britain's biggest mural – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism – Paintings from the Clark

The art of the French avant garde in the 19th century always has the power to startle because it is always underestimated. Newspapers tend to see it as safe; art historians analyse its bourgeois ideology. But the public knows better. The reason Monet, Renoir, Manet and their contemporaries remain so popular is not because people want "safe" art. It is because we can recognise true inspiration when we see it. The impressionists captured the feel of modern life in a way that was unprecedented. There's a lightness and reality to their paintings that is the taste of the world we inhabit. In these paintings, as their contemporary Karl Marx said of modernity, all that is solid melts into air.
Royal Academy, London W1, from 7 July until 23 September

Other exhibitions this week

Richard Wilson
The artist who filled Saatchi's tank with oil offers a sculptural take on a British pop icon, as he recreates the tottering bus from the final moments of the film The Italian Job.
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, from 7 July until 1 October

Peter Blake
A hero of pop art revisits the music that has inspired him.
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 7 October

Mark Wallinger
This quirky conceptualist always goes his own way – and it's worth following along.
Baltic, Gateshead, until 14 October

Olympic Posters
Chris Ofili's is the best and Tracey Emin's is the silliest, but whose will capture imaginations this summer?
Tate Britain, London SW1, until 23 September

Masterpiece of the week

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising

The strange erotic intensity of this history painting by Degas is a clue to the passions that pulse within his later impressionist and post-impressionist works. Near-naked young men and women face each other in tense competition, a fantasy of some athletic sex war. Degas shows a similarly charged sexual obsessiveness in later paintings in the same gallery: through his eyes, even hair-brushing becomes a sadomasochist ritual, and as for an acrobat suspending herself by her teeth ...
National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That it's possible to redo Van Gogh in dominoes

What a jumbo jet nose, a ginormous megaphone and a bus spray-painted with bubbles have in common

That a contemporary collection of Middle Eastern photography has been acquired for the UK – and about time, too

How beautiful the new Turner, Monet and Twombly show is

What the wild men of Germany, Romania and Croatia look like

And finally

Have you uploaded anything to the Guardian Art and design Flickr page yet?

Or shared any of your art with us?

Have you seen our Tumblr?

Do you follow us on Twitter?

Or on Facebook?

Have you signed up for the Art Weekly newsletter?


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November 15 2011

John Berger: the dark side of Degas's ballet dancers

Can limbs get lonely in a dance? The famous art critic thinks this could explain the dark patches in Degas's paintings of ballerinas

What lies in the folds? The folds of the classical ballet dancers' costumes and bodies as drawn and painted by Degas, that is. The question is prompted by Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, the exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The sumptuous catalogue contains a quotation from Baudelaire: "Dance is poetry with arms and legs; it is matter, gracious and terrible, animated, embellished by movement."

In Degas's compositions with several dancers, their steps, postures and gestures often resemble the almost geometric, formal letters of an alphabet, whereas their bodies and heads are recalcitrant, sinuous and individual. "Dance is poetry with arms and legs …"

Degas was obsessed by the art of classical ballet, because to him it said something about the human condition. He was not a balletomane looking for an alternative world to escape into. Dance offered him a display in which he could find, after much searching, certain human secrets. The exhibition tellingly demonstrates the parallels between Degas's highly original work and the development of photography and the invention of the movie camera. These technological advances both led to discoveries about how human and animal bodies move and operate: a horse galloping, a bird flying, etc.

Without doubt, Degas was intrigued by these innovations and made use of them, but I believe that what obsessed him was closer to what obsessed Michelangelo and Mantegna. All three were fascinated by the human capacity for martyrdom. All three wondered if it wasn't this that defined mankind. The human quality Degas most admired was endurance.

Let's go closer. In drawing after drawing, pastel after pastel, painting after painting, the contours of Degas's dancing figures become, at a certain point, darkly insistent, tangled and dusky. It may be around an elbow, a heel, an armpit, a calf muscle, the nape of a neck. The image goes dark – and this darkness has nothing to do with any logical shadow.

In the first place, it's the result of the artist correcting, changing and re-correcting the precise placing of the limb, hand or ear in question. His pencil or pastel notes, readjusts, notes again with more emphasis the advancing or receding edge of a continually moving body. Speed is crucial. Yet these "darknesses" also suggest the darkness of folds or fissures: they acquire an expressive function of their own. Which is what?

Go closer still. A classical ballet dancer controls and moves her entire indivisible body, but her most dramatic movements concern her two legs and two arms, which we can think of as pairs: two couples sharing the same torso. In everyday life, the two couples and torso live and operate side by side, compliant, contiguous, united by a centripetal energy, directed inwards. Yet, by contrast, in classical dance the pairs are separated, the body's energy is often centrifugal, thrown outwards – and every square centimetre of flesh becomes taut with a kind of solitude.

The dark folds or fissures in these images express the solitude being felt by a part of a limb or torso, which is accustomed to company, to being touched by fellow parts, but which when dancing has to go it alone. The darknesses express the pain of such a disconjuncture and the endurance necessary for bridging it imaginatively. Hence the grace and the starkness to which Baudelaire referred when he said "gracious and terrible".

Now look at Degas's studies of dancers who are taking a brief rest, particularly those he made towards the end of his life. They are among the most paradisiacal images I know, yet they are far from the Garden of Eden. While resting, the dancers' limbs are reunited. An arm reposes along the whole length of a leg. A hand refinds a foot to touch it, the fingers matching each toe. Their multiple solitudes are for a moment over. A chin rests on a knee. Contiguity is blissfully re-established. Often their eyes are half-closed and their faces look bland, as if recalling a transcendence.

The transcendence they are remembering is the aim of the art of dancing: the aim of a dancer's entire wracked body to become one with the music. What is astounding is that Degas's images capture this experience silently. With folds but without sound.


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September 17 2011

Picturing Movement – review

Royal Academy, London

The Royal Academy's mesmerising Degas and the Ballet begins and ends with the artist himself: dark-eyed and wary at the door in a lifesize photograph, half-blind in a tantalising film in the final room. In between are more than 40 years of ballet dancers shifting through a thousand different positions, depicted from every angle, in one ever-changing performance. Yet it is not the dancers but the artist one seeks to hold fast, to grasp the mystery and greatness of his work.

Degas (1834-1917) began visiting the ballet of the Paris Opera in his 40s. Thirty years later, when he had long since made the subject his own, an American collector asked: "Why, monsieur, do you always do ballet dancers?" Degas flashed back: "Because, madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks." The aphorism appears barbed until one considers that in ballet Degas found an inexhaustible source for his modern classicism with its emphasis on the body. But nor is the question as obtuse as it seems.

For why does Degas keep returning to the backstage hiatus and the weary rehearsals, to the waiting, watching, struggling and straining, to the laborious practice that eventually makes perfect? Convention, abetted by popularity, insists that this is the winsomely traditional side of his art, all those graceful ballerinas flitting across the stage in swan's-down and tulle. But consider how rarely he depicts a full-dress performance.

As if to make the point, the curators have positioned the Courtauld's Two Dancers on the Stage at the start of the show. The painting is justly famous for its ballerinas quivering en pointe in the limelight, shoes shining, tutus gauzy, roses blossoming in their hair. It is an image to spur a million girls to ballet on a winter's day, but it stands in contrast to almost everything that follows.

Degas's dancers are shown scratching their backs, hauling up their bodices, slumping exhausted on the floor. Beginners wait, old hands sprawl, lessons repeatedly stall. There are classes without teachers, rehearsals in which nobody moves, bare rooms in which stretching alternates with inaction, where one girls sits head in hands while the scene rakes to her distant companions awaiting instruction. It is remarkable how few dancers actually dance.

Ballet is an art of perfection, but Degas shows the workings, the ceaseless studying involved; the analogy with his own art is self-evident. Just as he depicts every fractional repositioning of the foot, every degree of bodily torsion from all round and in every medium – pencil, pastel, charcoal, chalk, paint, print and even wax – to get at the truth, so his dancers keep rehearsing to perfect their performance.

And how staggeringly radical he is from first to last. In The Rehearsal (1874), for all its diaphanous tutus and fetching arabesques, the scene is sharply cropped on one side like a snatch of half-heard conversation, while a spiral staircase restricts the viewing on the other. Dancers are seen from behind, so close their limbs are barely in focus or reflected in the mirror as illegible wraiths.

Three Dancers (1903) is built up using pastel and fixative in glowing layers of dot and swipe that resemble Jackson Pollock 50 years in advance. Degas doesn't even confine himself to one kind of mark-making per image. A painting will go many ways – incisive outline, dry stabs, liquid blurs, fingerprints. He will use a soft pastel for something sharply complex, crisscrossing the strokes so that you have to look through them, like traffic, to deduce a figure.

Photographic details are transcribed. Poses are recycled. A single figure repeated and reversed goes to make the mass of forms locked together, like gears in motion, in the Russian Dancers series. Heaven knows how he achieved this feat in fugitive chalk on slippery tracing paper, but that is part of his strangeness.

And Degas is profoundly mysterious. In this respect, the dancers are emblematic: beautiful people, perfect bodies, invitingly ideal forms to many another artist; nothing so facile to Degas.

The crime of popularity yielded to a charge of coldness some years ago. Degas is still portrayed as a heartless taxonomist of human anatomy and the dancers are still cited as evidence: their facelessness, their squat, hunched, splayed and overworked bodies, all observed from inelegant viewpoints.

They are not portraits, to be sure (though recognisable individuals emerge), but nor are they anatomical drawings. Degas isn't analysing the articulation of limbs or the muscle groups involved in each movement so much as the struggle of bodily existence, the drama of being embodied; he is less Leonardo and more Michelangelo.

Movement, the central theme of this show, is investigated with discrimination and insight. Degas's great wax dancers (or their bronze casts) are displayed alongside Muybridge's stop-start photographs of bodies in motion and one sees an affinity: the sculptures as 3D representations of sequential movement. Early films, Parisian panoramas, François Willème's "photo-sculptures" (statues based on multiple shots of sitters in the round, and surprisingly kitsch): all show French art swinging into motion. And yet movement itself is surely not Degas's true subject.

It is in the gallery of his own photographs that the artist comes into new focus (for me) and not just in his well-known portraits of Renoir, Mallarmé and others appearing like visions in a twilight dream. The Royal Academy also presents the rare shots of dancers. Technically flawed, these are aesthetic revelations none the less: the figures oblique and spectral in the gloom, as if trying to escape their own corporeal existence. Degas is already looking for more than the camera can catch.

So it is with this tremendous show, each work imagining the physical life – the inner stress – of the dancer. What it is to balance on one toe or lean precariously close to the floor; what it is to hold a leg at shoulder height or twist until your muscles nearly snap: this is what his images express. Degas goes far beyond observation, as if willing himself into the body of his dancers.

It is said that Degas's art is all climax from the off and so it seems from this show, superbly curated by Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar, beautifully designed by Ivor Heal. An early sketch of a child straining to hold a pose carries the same intensity as a late painting of dancers strenuously flexing their limbs and there is always Degas's peerless line, charged with perfect clarity.

But towards the end of his life, he addresses groups of figures with such force that they seem to metamorphose into pure form, something more like the essence of dance. Melting, curving, merging like multi-limbed goddesses in a limelight of violet, sulphur and flame blue, they move towards a vision of the future, towards the pure painting of modern art.

Here, the show itself breaks into motion with the few precious seconds of film captured (without permission) by Sacha Guitry in 1914-15. Degas is seen negotiating a faltering route through crowds in the Boulevard de Clichy, most of his face concealed by a white beard and dark hat. Just as he is getting close enough for you to see his eyes beneath the brim – to see the artist himself – the film expires: Degas is out of sight.


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September 12 2011

Degas: forever en pointe

As radical as he was reactionary, Edgar Degas was poised between two eras. Adrian Searle enjoys the moments of stillness in a new show exploring his obsession with dance

Edgar Degas, conservative, conventional, a man who could behave with monstrous egotism, surprised Edmond de Goncourt when the writer visited his studio in 1874. Explaining his art, Degas got up on his toes, rounded his arms and aped the moves of the ballet dancers that so obsessed him. It was an unexpected flash of humanity from this irascible stickler for social propriety. Goncourt wrote that Degas mixed "the aesthetics of a dance master with those of a painter". Degas in a tutu is unthinkable, though it's fun to try.

The anecdote is recounted in the catalogue to Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, which opens at the Royal Academy in London on Saturday. The show, curated by art historian Richard Kendall, is the latest of his many explorations of the difficult, contrary, paradoxical French artist. In a recent show, Kendall juxtaposed Degas with Picasso, and in 1996 co-curated a seminal Degas show for the National Gallery. The current exhibition focuses on Degas's obsession with dance and dancers, and also encompasses life beyond the artist's studio and the dance rehearsal room, and the confrontation between the artist, his medium and models. It moves from the stage to the street, and explores how the world is seen by photography and film, in panoramas filled with simultaneous movement and moments, and in frozen sequential glimpses. New ways of looking go beyond the artistic. Degas's own photographs reveal an artist embracing technology to see further and better, even as his eyesight failed.

Degas the man is in there, too. We see him, top-hatted, cigarette dangling from his lip, emerging from a Parisian public toilet in 1889 (why Giuseppe Primoli took this photo is unclear. Maybe he was an early paparazzo). We see Degas the boulevardier, and Degas mucking about with friends in the 1890s, improvising a photoshoot in a chateau garden. He could be a wag as well as a monster. Most moving of all is a brief 1915 film clip of Degas in old age, near blind, unsteadily negotiating a lamp-post in the Paris streets. He seems so close, so far away. The film is projected towards the end of the show, among films of a Ukrainian dance troupe, the Lumière brothers' hand-tinted footage of a woman performing a swirling dance, and clips of people running, jumping and dancing with animal – albeit jerky – grace.

Even the wrinkles matter

We might think of Degas as a distant, 19th-century figure, but he didn't die until 1917. Degas was a man of antediluvian attitudes, some of which appear now, as they did to many of his friends, as unconscionable. His antisemitism, his obstreperous nationalistic rants were one side of his personality; his art another.

There can be few who stop and look at his 1880-81 Little Dancer Aged 14, the bronze sculpture of the adolescent dancer who wears a gauzy fabric tutu and a satin ribbon tied to the cue of her bronze hair and not feel in the presence of a great and mysterious thing. Her head is up, her hands behind her back, her expression is bold. Even the wrinkles in her tights seem to matter. Degas's sculptures seem inordinately plastic and mobile, even tough, frozen in their impossible and dynamic positions for ever. Rather than depicting a dancer in movement, it is the viewer who animates the sculpture as we prowl around her, just as Degas circumnavigated the figure in drawings of dancers seen from every angle, the partial views coming together in the sculpture itself. Kendall, in his recent exhibition of Picasso and Degas, sees the sculpture as the model for one of the figures in Picasso's 1906 Demoiselles d'Avignon. What goes around comes around.

Degas certainly became aware of cubism, though whether he recognised all those colliding mobile glimpses, going from the newspaper to the glass, the table to a face, as reciprocating his own interests is unknown. But sometimes in art, time flows backwards and we can't avoid seeing the past in the light of what came later. Both Degas and the cubists were influenced by photography and early film. Degas the man was a reactionary, but his art seemed to spring from another part of his compartmentalised brain. In any case, there is no reason why the radical artist should not also have been a social conservative. The reverse can be just as true.

But what does it mean to call Degas radical? The milieu of the ballet was a staple of late 19th-century French art, but Degas got behind the glitz, even when he was seated in the stalls. Degas painted a group of his fellow "abonnés" – well-off men allowed to attend rehearsals and mingle with the dancers after performances – watching a production of Robert le Diable in 1871. He's right there, painting the heads of the front row audience and the orchestra beyond, with the madcap performance of the dancers, dressed as nuns, flurrying about on the stage, seen through a forest of bassoons in the woodwind section. The bottom third of the painting is all heads, hair, collars and necks. And most of all ears, a row of ears, each belonging to a different, and recognisable, well-heeled balletomane.

One insouciant bloke ignores the performance entirely, raising his opera glasses to check the goings-on in a theatre box outside the painting's frame. It is the dance up on the stage, which looks a farrago, that seems the distraction. It's all about atmosphere and place and being there, though the whole scene was concocted from drawings, back in Degas's cluttered, dusty, and reputedly gloomy studio.

Everything ended up there. Maybe he liked the dance rehearsal room because it was a space much like his own, a mental as well as physical terrain. It was also a space that had much in common with the flat emptiness of a canvas or a sheet of paper, waiting to be animated by something new. Degas knew and drew and painted dancers as individuals as well as groups of bodies, clustered and apart, as rhyming, rhythmic groups and solitary moments. The dancers limber up, they rest, they go into themselves. My favourite Degas's of the dance are those paintings he made in these rehearsal rooms, with their high windows overlooking courtyards and distant views of the city, the pools of light and footmarks tracked over the sweeping, squeaking downbeat floors, the long, grubby walls with their patches of spalled plaster. These arenas of footfalls and the beat of the ballet master's stick, of breaths and exertions, are elemental places.

Moments of stillness

If dancers animate a space, they also animate Degas's paintings. A seated dancer stares dazed at the floor. Another raises her leg to the wall beside the window, stretching out her cramp. In this moment of stillness a tiny scar of orange-pink light grazes her ballet shoe, and animates a huge, dingy emptiness that fills almost half the painting. Degas understood emptiness, the space between things, the pauses and breaks, the clusters and attenuations.

As the show progresses, so Degas's work falters, along with his sight. His later pastels flare under modern gallery lighting, their compositions as congested as the surfaces of his pastels, clogged with smears and grazes and too much colour. Even the clunky old film footage looks more modern. It is Degas's emptiness I admire, punctuated by a human gesture.


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September 07 2011

A fine balance: Degas and the art of ballet

The ballet pictures of Edgar Degas were the laboratory for the painter's most daring ideas

Edgar Degas and ballet dancers is one of the great painterly partnerships, like Monet and lilies, Gauguin and Tahiti, or Lucian Freud and naked flesh. The world of the ballet, and in particular of the Paris Opera Ballet, was Degas's specialist subject, as well as the source of materials for his most popular and lucrative lines. Indeed it is impossible to think of him without thinking of floorboards and tutus, the endlessly reproduced Etoile of 1876/7, for instance, soaking up the applause with an elegant curtesy at the edge of the stage, or one of the many "Dance-classes" where young girls strike poses for their ballet master, Jules Perrot.

Indeed during the first few years of my life, one of those Perrot paintings, now in the Musée D'Orsay in Paris, was the sole representative of art in my little world, hung above the alcove in the sitting-room where I used to hide during Doctor Who. For a while I confused the Perrot with Harold Wilson smoking a pipe, an association I have never been able completely to forget.

Because Degas was so familiar, because I felt over-exposed to his talent and therefore somewhat inured to his charms, I acknowledged rather than appreciated the greatness of his work; he was the impressionist for people who didn't really like impressionists, the same prettiness but with line, structure and form, a brilliant draughtsman, yawn, a 19th-century classic. I even thought of missing the massive Degas retrospective that opened in New York in the winter of 1988, though it was not far from where I was living at the time; it would be uncomfortably crowded and Degas had not apparently been a very nice man, a grumbling grouch with a sarcastic wit in his early years, who evolved into an embarrassing antisemite.

I did go, however. It was crowded. And I was completely blown away. Degas didn't just paint dancers, I discovered, he painted horses and washerwomen and milliners, and women getting awkwardly in and out of bathtubs, or combing their or some other girl's hair. There were also some remarkable group portraits, of his relatives, the Belelli family, of the clerks in a New Orleans cotton exchange. Above all it was clear he was a risk-taker and an innovator. His compositions were daring and dynamic, combining radical foreshortenings and vast areas of "empty" space, Procrustean croppings and dangerous blockings of view, and an enormous variety of materials and techniques, greasy inks and essences – oil diluted with turps – powdery pinky pastels, plain old charcoal on bright green commercial paper or robin-egg blue, and all shapes and sizes, some huge some almost miniatures, some extremely elongated, some almost square. Some of the most extraordinary were fan-shaped.

Having been familiar with Degas for longer than I could remember, I now felt as if I had met him for the first time. Instead of merely acknowledging his genius, as a mark of my literacy and education, I recognised it, was overwhelmed by it.

The first effect of this conversion, however, was to split Degas in two: the ballet painter, endlessly reproduced, and the other Degas, the one I admired. It was only much later that I was able to see the ballet-pictures too as worthy of admiration, indeed as the laboratory for some of his most daring pictorial ideas.

Degas had started his career in the old fashioned way with life studies followed by trips to Italy and innumerable copyings of old masters. It was here that he refined his incomparable talent for drawing, but in his early years he was drawn to history painting – young Spartans, Semiramis – and the dreamy style of symbolists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau. The turning point seems to have come with a startling painting of 1867 when he was in his mid-30s. A group of women in medieval-looking garb rest by a pool, the horse bows its head to drink, one of them plays a lute. It could almost be something from the studios of the pre-Raphaelites. But this is not some illustration of a legend, it is Mlle Fiocre in the ballet La Source, and therefore his first ballet picture, not that you would notice if the title didn't give the game away. By taking one step back from the drama, by framing his frame, so to speak, with a proscenium arch, he had in one instant shifted from being a painter of historical fantasies to a painter of modern life.

Within a few years he was a central figure in what has come to be known as the impressionist movement – "the pontiff of the sect" – taking a leading role in organising the first of the Salons Anonymes in 1874. In what would become a familiar pattern, the critics praised Degas and panned the rest. Degas nevertheless publicly stood by his new friends, although he also seems to have disliked Monet's work – he said it gave him vertigo – and could be sarcastic about their fondness for painting out of doors: "If I were the government, I would have a squad of gendarmes to keep an eye on these people painting landscapes from nature. Oh I do not wish anyone dead; I would however agree to spraying them with a little bird shot for starters."

By now his own preference was for the interiors of the Paris Opera, the off-stage spaces, the dingy classrooms and peeling walls. In fact four of his contributions to the 1874 exhibition were ballet pictures, and when Edmond de Goncourt visited him in February of that year he recorded in his diary that "After many attempts, experiments, and thrusts in every direction, he has fallen in love with modern subjects and has set his heart on laundry girls and danseuses."

Goncourt noted one particular painting that was not submitted to the salon but which features prominently in the Royal Academy's reassessment, Degas and the Ballet. Called simply The Rehearsal, it has some dancers relaxing with their chaperones in the foreground on the right, while more girls descend by means of a spiral staircase that blocks off the view on the left hand side. The rehearsal itself is going on in the middle distance above an acreage of floorboards. Just visible in the upper right is Jules Perrot with his big stick. It is a lovely example of a moment captured in real life, almost a fly-on-the-wall painting, with lots of things going on at once, people partially obscured, figures broken up by objects in the way, a pair of legs in the top left corner entering from the floor above, a snapshot of a moment in time in a place of bustling activity, people and objects not posed for a picture but chaotic and half-seen, as they are in real life.

But of course the picture has been very carefully composed. It is rigorously structured with strong diagonals, centrepoint and symmetries. The apparent chaos is resolved into a scene which is in practice clear and understandable, within a composition that achieves a satisfying equilibrium.

In fact The Rehearsal is in its own way a historical fantasy as imaginary as Semiramis contemplating the construction of Babylon. The room never existed in the Palais Garnier, but belongs to its predecessor the Opera Choiseul which had burned to the ground some years earlier. Jules Perrot is also unhistorical and misplaced, for the figure is taken from a postcard of him in his younger days when he was working for the imperial ballet in St Petersburg.

The organisers call the picture a manifesto and, looking at it, it becomes easier to see the, at first rather surprising, affinity the curmudgeonly bachelor discovered in this world of girliness and frills. First of all, amid the chaos Degas found endless repetition of standard movements and poses, providing plenty of opportunities for the relentless copyist, the champion draughtsman, to get some daring and implausible postures absolutely convincing and right, creating a series of interior landscapes accessible without having to go outdoors. Then, it provides a neat metaphor for the realist's quest for authenticity, the dingy truth of dingy classrooms that lies behind the Opera's glamorous stage façades.

But I think there is a much deeper affinity between the gentleman artist and his favourite subjects. There is something profoundly balletic about the way that Degas works the visual field, as a ballerina works an empty stage, the way he stretches perspective, pushes foreshortening, teeters on the brink of unbalancing, but balances, briefly, nevertheless. Now when I see that endlessly reproduced Etoile, I see the artist himself, acknowledging the appreciation, daringly poised.

Degas and the Ballet is at the Royal Academy from 17 September to 11 December.


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August 17 2011

Peter Duggan's Artoons – Edgar Degas

Peter Duggan re-imagines Edgar Degas's great moment of epiphany: stumbling upon the aesthetic allure of bathing ladies. Warning – no nudity



May 26 2011

Don't believe the hype about contemporary art

Like the economy, 21st-century British art is running on false credit. How many truly great living artists can you count?

In the Musée d'Orsay in Paris hang the revolutionary works of painters who made art modern in France more than a century ago. Here they are, the true greats of early modernism: Cézanne and Van Gogh, as well as Gauguin and Degas, Monet and, of course, Seurat. That's six, and there are obviously several more profoundly important figures in France at that time, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Odilon Redon. That makes eight. And there are more, too, including sculptors led by Rodin. Perhaps you could bring the figure up to 16, even 20, without scraping the barrel.

Say we agree, generously, that 20 artists genuinely mattered in late 19th-century France at the dawn of modernism, one of the truly great moments of art history. Now, how many living British artists are regarded as important, unmissable, revolutionary? To judge from the bonanza of 21st-century British art touted in newspaper articles, art fairs, group shows, magazines and a host of solo shows at legions of galleries, there must be – what? – a hundred, no, more like two hundred names to conjure with.

So this must be the greatest moment ever in the story of art, a cultural golden age to put fifth-century Athens to shame.

Or could 21st-century British art possibly be overhyped?

Come on – do the sums – they don't add up. The young and middle-aged artists celebrated in Britain today cannot all be marvellous. Just as Britain's economy in recent times turned out to be running on false credit, so too our art scene has ballooned into a mass delusion.

How many great works of art can we actually count that our age will bequeath posterity? Where are our Sunflowers, our apples and our dancers.

There is a pitiful gulf between noise and achievement in contemporary British art. Of course, we have some good artists, some very good artists, and maybe a couple of great ones. But the vast majority of exhibitions are slight and huge numbers of artists are "farting around", as I observed of Mark Leckey the other day. I did not mean to imply he is the only bad artist. In fact, truly honest art criticism in Britain today would mostly consist of reviews like that one.

Look – as I say – do the maths. You must know how many, or rather how few, artists it is possible to truly love, how small the selection of artworks that really make an impact is. Now pick up any art magazine and sample the latest haul of significant, new, radical, cool artists: it seems there never has been and never will be an age when artists of real value proliferate so readily. Therefore, by plain logic and common sense, a vast proportion of the art we hear so much about in Britain today must be rubbish. It's that simple.


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May 20 2011

Edgar Degas painted as radical mover in Royal Academy show

Exhibition splits from 'choc-box reputation' to unveil French painter as technically savvy innovator

Edgar Degas was unquestionably a sublime painter of beautiful ballerinas, but the Royal Academy believes he should be seen as so much more than that: his dance images over 30 years are the work of someone who was radical and innovative.

The RA has announced details of its big autumn show which will, surprisingly perhaps, be the first UK exhibition that looks at the great impressionist artist's preoccupation with dance.

But it is the painter's relationship with early photography and film which remains largely unexplored and which, the RA believes, will cast Degas in a new light.

Ann Dumas, co-curator of the show, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, said the RA was planning an "original and revealing" perspective on a painter who had something of a chocolate box reputation. "We hope people will revise the notion that Degas was just a painter of pretty dancers. He was in a way conceptual and an extremely radical, highly innovative, artist, in tune with the technological developments of his time," she said.

Degas was obsessed with painting ballerinas in action. He did it over and again like no artist before or since. Asked what led to his fascination, he said it was the nearest one could get to the complex movements of the Greeks.

The RA's show in London, opening in September for a three-month run, will have about 85 works, and will include his sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, on loan from the Tate.

There will also be exhibits exploring how Degas was influenced by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge and Jules-Étienne Marey, and by the films of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière.

The show offers the chance to see Degas himself on film – not that the artist knew anything about it as he declined Sacha Guitry's request to be filmed. The footage of a white-bearded Degas making his way along Paris's Boulevard de Clichy was an early example of covert filming.

Kathleen Soriano, the RA's director of exhibitions, said the show would mark the first time that the RA had "considered the relationship of Degas' work with dance and dancers alongside the birth of photography and the development of film and the moving image".


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January 13 2011

The art of ageing

Art exhibition uses work of famous artists to challenge perceptions held of older people

Negative perceptions of ageing and older people are being challenged through the works of famous artists at an exhibition that opened today.

The show aims to celebrate and explore age and the ageing process. It includes works by Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henry Moore and Maggi Hambling, as well as newly commissioned pieces by three contemporary artists.

"Ageing is the most important subject on the planet," said Tom Kirkwood, director of Newcastle University's institute of ageing and health, which is behind the exhibition at the city's Great North Museum: Hancock.

"Life expectancy is the biggest thing that will change humanity in the 21st century. We face other major challenges of course, climate change say, but the fact our lives are getting longer is just enormous in its implications."

Degas had a progressive retinal eye disease from his 30s which, in all likelihood, contributed to the wonderfully blurred, hazier backgrounds of his later and better works, including the Ballet Dancers painting in the show on loan from the National Gallery.

Arguably, this helped secure his place in art history, with Renoir writing that, had Degas died at 50 he'd be no more than a footnote.

Renoir was so affected by rheumatoid arthritis that he couldn't hold a paintbrush in later life. Instead he turned to sculpture and employed a younger artist to form the clay following his instructions, as in the Mother and Child bronze in the exhibition.

The show is trying to shine a light on many aspects of a large subject. For example, the inclusion of Henry Moore's illustrations for The Seven Ages of Man aims to highlight the fact that ageing is a lifelong process that begins in the womb. Another Moore drawing is of the hands of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of Britain's most important scientists, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from the age of 24.

There is a striking Hambling portrait of her elderly neighbour Frances Rose, whose gnarled arthritic hands may scream pain, but whose face shows liveliness and vitality. A video by Jordan Baseman portrays 83-year-old eccentric Gordon Rowley – former president of the British Cactus and Succulent Society – who maintains a joyful verve for life and living.

"This idea that you've got to go quietly into a corner at a certain age is dreadful and nonsense," said the show's curator, Lucy Jenkins.

Three artists – Jennie Pedley, Andrew Carnie and Annie Cattrell – have collaborated with and followed scientists at the institute to produce works for the show. Cattrell observed brain autopsies before creating her works which examine how memory is stored and include sculptures of the hippocampus and amgydala in a brain-shaped cave.

Kirkwood and Jenkins said they hoped visitors would leave the exhibition with more of a spring in their step.

"I hope people will take a lot of positives from this show, that we shouldn't fear old age," Jenkins said.

"The fact that people are living longer is really good for the economy," added Kirkwood.

Everyone needed to think more positively about ageing, he said.

"The way things are going now, the vast majority of us are going to live to a ripe old age and if there has to come a point when you look in the mirror and you don't like what you see that's very undermining for your self-esteem and the quality of your life.

"This is why art, which can reach in to people and get them to think and respond differently, is so important."

Coming of Age: The Art and Science of Ageing is on until 2 March.


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January 07 2011

Gauguin tribute to Van Gogh for sale

Works by Picasso, Matisse and Degas also on offer at blockbuster Christie's art sale

A still life of sunflowers painted by Paul Gauguin as a tribute to his friend Vincent Van Gogh, which has not been seen in public for more than 20 years, will lead one of the blockbuster impressionist art sales in London next month.

Christie's today announced details of its February impressionist and modern art sales which will include works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard. The total pre-sale estimate is between £74m and £109m – the second highest for equivalent Christie's sales in London and a sign that sellers are more confident than a year ago, when the estimate was between £57m and £81m.

Certainly there is a detectable buoyancy in the trophy art market, as evidenced by largely successful sales in New York and London last year that included a record for any artwork bought at auction – the sale in May of Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for £70m.

Christie's head of impressionist and modern art, Giovanna Bertazzoni, called 2010 a landmark year for the art market, with record prices driven by a demand for top quality works.

"The category continues to engage new collectors from both established and emerging markets, including China and Russia," she said. "When there is a healthy supply it has been shown that there is a tremendous demand for the rarest and the best."

Few would quibble about the Gauguin being in that category. Nature Morte à L'Espérance was painted in Tahiti in 1901 – two years before his death from syphilis and 11 years after Van Gogh's suicide – and was shown at Gauguin's first big retrospective in 1906. Although not seen in public since 1989, it has featured in more than 20 major museum exhibitions over the years and has the highest estimate, at £7m to £10m.

The Christie's sale will include four works being sold by the Art Institute of Chicago. It is selling two Picassos, a Matisse portrait and a Braque still life – Nature Morte à la Guitare (Rideaux Rouge) – estimated at between £3.5m and £5.5m.

Other highlights include an Degas ballet painting – Danseuses Jupes Jaunes (Deux Danseuses en Jaune), which has been in the same family since 1899 and is estimated at between £3m and £5m – and a Bonnard summer's day view from his house in Normandy, Terrasse à Vernon, estimated at between £3m and £4m.


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November 18 2010

Edgar Degas' ballet paintings on show

French painter's fascination with movement to be focus of Royal Academy's canvas and film exhibition

An exhibition on Degas and his fascination with ballet dancers – surprisingly, the first to be staged in the UK – was today announced as one of the highlights of the Royal Academy's 2011 programme.

Edgar Degas is often seen as a populist painter of chocolate-box scenes of horse racing and pretty ballet dancers, but the RA exhibition will aim to show he was far more than that. "He was a very radical, cutting-edge artist in his day," said the co-curator Ann Dumas.

The artist's preoccupation with ballet dancers is well-known, which makes it all the more surprising that the RA show will be the first significantly large UK exhibition to explore this. Dumas said it could have taken so long because of the popularity of the paintings. "The appeal of these images has, in a way, almost been a barrier to a thorough investigation."

The show also aims to break ground by exploring the development of modern film and photography practices alongside what Degas was attempting in paint and sculpture. "Degas was actually much more skilful at capturing figure and movement than the very first film-makers were. Sometimes Degas was ahead of the game and sometimes he was learning from photographers. There was a give and take process," said Dumas.

Degas never really explained why he painted dancers so much, although he once flippantly said it was because of the pretty dresses. On another occasion he said it was the nearest one could get to the complex movements of the Greeks.

For Dumas, that answer is central to the debate. "Degas loved the art of antiquity. He used to go a lot to the antiquity galleries at the Louvre and look at figures on vases and the patterns of movement you get on classical friezes. He was really interested in the human figure in movement, and complex movement." The artist would observe dancers backstage and in rehearsal rooms.

The show will include one of Degas's most famous sculptures, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, lent by the Tate, an artwork that would not raise an eyebrow today but which in the 1880s "would have been like Damien Hirst".

Degas's sculptures were cast into bronze after his death, but he made them in wax. "When he first exhibited [Little Dancer] people were astonished at its realism," said Dumas. "It was wax-painted flesh colour with a real tutu, real satin ballet slippers, a wig of real human hair with a ribbon. One critic compared it to a voodoo sculpture."

The RA will also next year hold its first large photography show since 1989, focusing on 20th-century Hungarian photography, including that of émigrés such as Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, and Martin Munkácsi.

Before that, the RA will stage the UK's first retrospective of the drawings of Jean-Antoine Watteau, an artist best known for his invention of the genre fêtes galantes, mostly pictures of idle but elegant aristrocats in parkland settings. There will also be Watteau's less well-known erotic nudes. "It's quite a sexy show," promised the RA's director of exhibitions, Kathleen Soriano.

In the main galleries in January will be a show devoted to modern British sculpture, followed by the 243rd summer exhibition, before the Degas opens on 17 September.

The RA gets no state funding and relies on generating its own income and attracting donors.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the RA's secretary and chief executive, conceded that it was, in the current climate, more difficult to attract sponsors. "Inevitably, in a period of recession, it is not straightforward to secure major corporate sponsorship. Big corporations have, to some extent, reined back and that makes us proportionately more grateful to those who have continued to sponsor us."


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December 31 2009

Degas pastel disappears

Thieves who stole a pastel by Edgar Degas from an exhibition in Marseille left no sign of having broken in, police said. Les Choristes (The Chorus), which has an estimated value of €800,000 (£710,000), was discovered to be missing from the Musée Cantini by a security guard when he opened up. The work, on loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for an exhibition due to end on Sunday, had been stolen overnight. Investigators have not ruled out a "complicit insider", according to Jacques Dallest, leading the investigation. The work, created between 1876 and 1877, measures 27cm by 32cm.


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