Tuesday, 13 September 2011

New Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

London has a rich cultural life and today I was invited by the Royal Academy of Arts for the preview of Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, which traces the development of the artist's ballet imagery throughout his career.

'For almost two decades there was no Degas show in London and the city loves Degas and loves ballet', says the curator Richard Kendall.

'In his day, Degas was one of the most radical artists in his conceptual approach to art, he was very cutting-edge,' adds Kendall.

This exhibition reminded me of the famous Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta performing the Swan Lake. I was almost immediately transported to another world of magic and fantasy.

This summer I read his visceral and charming autobiography No Way Home, realising his life was a bit like ballet, full of drama and inner beauty. No book made me cry that much... But it does give you energy to follow the goals you set for yourself.

I'm sure Degas was also enchanted by the ballet universe inhabited by hard-core dancers who despite the most excruciating hardships end up performing poetic movements which look effortless. 

Little Dancer Aged Fourteenth

In fact he was known in his lifetime as the 'Painter of Dancers'  but his viewpoint was different; he once claimed that his ballet scenes were 'a pretext for depicting movement.'

His drive to capture movement was the artist's main contribution to impressionism but Kendall points out another one: Degas emphasized the human body.

Born in Paris in 1834, Degas grew up in a rapidly changing city where art was undergoing its own revolution.

Edgar Degas

In the 1870s he became a leading figure in the Impressionist group, sharing their fascination with modern life.

Degas strove for vivid realism and a sense of actuality, based on close study of ballerina's behaviour and surroundings.

Degas was fascinated by new techniques for representing visual experience and photography was everywhere, offering novel views of the world and new notions of realism.

In later years he acquired a camera of his own, taking pictures of a ballerina and using them in his own pioneering compositions.

Dancer (Arm Outstretched)

Increasing blindness forced Degas to give up working in around 1912. He died in Monmartre in 1917, during the First World War.


Deborah Bull CBE, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet and now creative Director at the Royal Opera House, joins broadcaster Christopher Cook to preview her new forthcoming book 'The Everyday Dancer' and gives a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of a dancer. (30 September)

Darcey Bussell CBE, renowned as one of the greatest English dancers of all time, discusses the representation of ballet in the 21st century with Kevin O'Hare, the newly-appointed Director of The Royal Ballet. (14 September)

You may also participate in life drawing and street photography workshops lead by Francis Bowyer, Life Drawing Tutor at RA and professional photographer Roy  Matthews.

Royal Academy of Arts
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement
17 September - 11 December 2011

Other exhibitions:
Postmodernism at V&A