Until 11 December the exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement fills most of the main galleries at the Royal Academy. As well as paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures by Degas himself, there are photographic panoramas of Paris that share the long horizontal shape of Degas’s pictures of dancers in the rehearsal room; there are also examples of the photographic experiments in which Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey analysed movement. It was a time when photographers made sculpture, painters took photographs and even scientists did work that helped painters (had they been able to look forward from Eakins to Francis Bacon, they would have found that they had succeeded, if not quite in the way they expected). The particular kind of ‘truth’ revealed by the scientists’ cameras – does a galloping horse ever have all its feet off the ground at the same time? – has the advantage of coming with little or no aesthetic baggage. Photographs made for a practical purpose – medical, anthropological – have a naivety that leaves the manner of their presentation to the artist. Degas doesn’t often make direct use of such material – the catalogue illustrates one drawing of a horse taken from a Muybridge sequence – but his drawings show the same pose from different angles, and his sculptures of exercising dancers were, as much as Muybridge’s photographs, tools of analysis. The remarkable series of drawings associated with the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is just one instance of work that extends exploration to the point where the notion of what is finished and what isn’t disappears. It is as though all the ballet images taken together are a single exploration of the subject.
LRB 6 October 2011 | PDF Download