Taylor and I went to see Degas and the Dance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday. It was very nice.
I had been aware of Degas and his many paintings of ballet dancers, of course, and thought they were okay, although they never really struck a chord. But seeing art full size and close up is different, and I was looking forward to getting to know Degas better.
I wasn't disappointed. Dancers are a common subject of painting, but one of the most interesting things about Degas is that his interest in them and their art encompassed all of the dancers' professional lives, not just their moments on stage. He apparently went to great lengths, and had to call in various favors, in order to get what amounted to a season pass to the Paris Opera (not an 'opera' in our sense, but the major ballet company in Paris in the 19th Century). This allowed him free and complete backstage access, and for decades, he painted and sculpted the dancers at rehearsal, while waiting backstage, and in unguarded moments of exhaustion or frustration, as well as their moments in the spotlight. He was friends with many of them, and with the other habitués of the Opera.
From his writings, it seemed that he felt many parallels between their art and his own. He was one of those artists who seems never to have felt himself 'inspired' or spontaneous, but that he had to achieve his effects through unceasing labor, practice, and repetition—much as a ballet dancer does. He was also acutely aware that their art was all make-believe. He wrote to one (as part of a sonnet):
Go forth, without the help of useless beauty
My little darlings, with your common face.
Leap shamelessly, you priestesses of grace!
The dance instills in you something that sets you apart,
Something heroic and remote.
One knows that in your world
Queens are made of distance and greasepaint.
The exhibition covers most of Degas' career painting dancers. His later work is almost abstract, his early stuff looks too academic, too 'expected'. I think I like the most paintings from the period around 1880. He was able to do beautiful things with light and shadow. There was one particular practice room at the Opera that he liked to paint. It had three large vertical arched windows that let in the morning light, he painted the dancers at their practice, drenched in this light. It occurs to me that such painting may never be again, because almost nothing indoors is done by natural light any more; rooms are simply not built with windows like that any more. Three 'frieze' paintings from this period are especially interesting. All are much longer than tall, all depict dancers at practice in this room. Here's one. The composition is unusual, but for some reason, works really well. The reproduction just doesn't do the painting justice. Degas is one painter in which you really have to see the original to appreciate him. One final ballet practice painting, an ensemble scene, with about twenty girls and women doing dozens of different things, demonstrating, practicing, primping, gossiping, relaxing. It has something of the flavor a Renoir cafe scene, I think.
We had dinner at a Korean restaurant afterward. It was good, but not nearly as good as the Degas.
Left radical is the radical form of 'water', top right radical is 'sun' (日),
bottom right is 'bowl' (皿). Origin of this character is controversial. Henshall
suggests as a mnemonic: 'Sun warms water in a bowl.'