Monday, 25 December 2017

Degas, Dance, Drawing

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Musée d'Orsay, "Degas, Danse, Dessin" 28 Nov 2017 to 25 Feb 2018, Paris

Edgar Degas died on 27 Sept 2017. To mark the centenary of his death, the Musée d'Orsay has assembled many of his most famous works in an exhibition called Degas, Danse, Dessin. It  has run from 28 Nov 2017 and will continue until 25 Feb 2018. The name comes from the title of an appreciation of Degas's studies of dancers by Paul Valéry.  It has been translated into English under the title Degas, Dance, Drawing.

Many of Degas's most famous works are there including The Ballet Class, The Orchestra Pit and The Dress Rehearsal. The work that first caught my eye was Degas's La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze AnsI had seen it before but never looked at it closely. It depicts a young ballet student standing in 4th position with her hands clasped behind her back performing a rather uncomfortable exercise that has been taught to me. The figure is almost lifelike. It has hair tied back with a ribbon and wears a tunic, skirt and ballet shoes just like a modern student. The most realistic feature of the sculpture (if that is what it can be called) is the expression of concentration and perhaps just a little discomfort on the statue's face. I wear that expression at some point in almost every class I attend and I have seen that expression on all my fellow students too.

There were other sculptures of dancers in bronze on display and I looked at them with fresh eyes too.  One was doing a tendu, another an arabesque, yet another a penché and so on. These are exercises that every ballet student and, no doubt, every dancer attempts in almost every class.  Looking at some of the figures I noticed imperfections.  At first those imperfections irritated me rather like the podgy figures in his paintings who look nothing like the highly toned athletes who appear on stage today. But then it dawned on me. Degas was not idolizing the dancers on stage any more than he was idolizing laundry workers in Les RepasseusesHe was studying women (and it seems to be all women) doing hard physical work. So very different from the wives or daughters of princes, merchants and aristocrats who are rather better represented in the world's art galleries.

The exhibition was themed on Valéry's book which is not well known even in France. It was published in 1937 some 20 years after the artist's death. Fragments of the author's notes were on display next to the artist's sketches some of which I attempted to read.  I was very tired on Saturday morning having had very little sleep the night before and there was only so much of Valéry's observations that I could take in. it is probably advisable to read the book and make multiple visits to appreciate the exhibition fully.

A thought that struck me after visiting the show is that there are hardly any men in his ballet paintings and sculptures.  There is a ballet master in the ballet class and there are men in the orchestra pit but none on stage.  Male dancers were regarded less highly than now in the late 19th century but they would have been around to dance such roles as Albrecht and James.  Degas seems to have ignored them completely and one has to ask "why?" 

Degas was around when Diaghilev brought his Ballets Russes to Paris in 1909. They caused a sensation at the time.  Other artists working in France such as Matisse and Picasso actually worked for the company. Degas seems to have shown no interest in the Russians and they showed no interest in him.  Again, the question has to be asked "why?".

This had been my first visit to the Musée d'Orsay. It is a converted railway station just like GMex in Manchester (see the History of the Museum pagon the museum's website). It is a work of art in itself, particularly the murals in the restaurant. It has a massive collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, sculpture and design including the biggest collection of Van Gogh's that I have seen outside Amsterdam.  I visited as many of the collections as I could but its sheer scale defeated me.

If you plan to visit the exhibition try to read the book first. Don't expect an idolization of the ballet.  On the contrary, if like me you are an adult ballet student you may be reminded uncomfortably of yourself.  Finally, if you don't like his dancers, remember that Degas also painted horses. Indeed, he seems to have been kinder to them than he was to women.

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