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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When Degas was papped

This morning I went to the press preview of Degas and The Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy.

In the 1870s Degas spent hours sketching dancers rehearsing and performing from every conceivable angle. His girls appear more solid than today’s ballerinas. They bend and flex. They grip their ankles. They adjust their straps. They have hips and thighs. You can almost hear them strain. For all the airs and graces on display they could be lifting baskets of fish down at the market.

Photography wasn’t up to the job of capturing a dancer on tiptoe because exposure times could be as long as fifteen minutes. The early moving pictures which were being pioneered in Paris around the same time took multiple exposures of running men, connected them and slowed them down in an effort to isolate the secrets of motion. It wasn’t satisfactory. To adapt an old commercial, thanks to the way shading and shape can suggest precise transfers of weight, only painting can do zis.

The press event was enhanced by the attendance of former prima ballerina Darcey Bussell (above). She was dressed all in red. This is the only respect in which she would be confused with the back of a bus. She was explaining how she admired the way Degas had managed to suggest that the dancer had arrived at a particular pose that very instant. To demonstrate she flickered to life in front us, dazzlingly arranging her upper body into that precise pose. Degas would have got out his pencil and made her do it again and again and again.

The exhibition finishes with a lovely touch. Degas had become obsessed with photography late in his life. When he was a very old man he was asked if he would pose for a movie. He refused. So the photographer set up in the street near his house, waited for the old man to come out and then filmed him walking past the camera. He doesn't appear to have been aware that he was being papped.