What relationship if any, a nineteenth century impressionist painter has to today's CG artists is an interesting question, and one that occurred to me whilst at the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Degas and the Ballet examines in detail the redoubtable French artist's devotion to his favourite subject, placing it in context alongside the then nascent, new media of film and photography.
Although his subject matter varied throughout a long career, Degas (1834-1917) is probably best well known for his depictions of ballet dancers, images whose daring and originality are often overlooked on account of their enormous popularity and frequent reproduction. The Royal Academy show aims to refresh our view of Degas and the wealth of work here is testament to both his authority as a draughtsman, and his continued innovation with that most elusive of subjects; the moving figure.
Degas is among the earliest of artists upon whom the influence of photography can be seen - his compositions and figures often cut off by the frame, creating the vérité of the casual snapshot (La Répétition 1871) - and a whole room here is devoted to the photography of Muybridge and Marey. Their experimental recordings of the human figure captivated Degas and find expression in his masterful drawings; his agile, assured line and frequent pentimenti sometimes suggesting - albeit tenuously - animation.
The exhibition closes with a remarkable piece of footage, Degas himself, covertly filmed walking the street by Sacha Guitry in 1915 just two years before his death; the elderly artist walks towards us, partially obscured by an unknown pedestrian who turns and smiles presciently at the camera that will supplant hand-made art to become the primary visual experience of the new century.
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