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'The painter of dancers' as obsessed documentarian

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2002



"They call me the painter of dancers, not understanding that for me the dance is a pretext for painting pretty costumes and rendering movement." As an explanation of his art, this comment, voiced by Degas to the art dealer Vollard sounds like an almost trivial understatement.

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Richard Kendall, co-curator of the major exhibition, "Degas and the Dance," opening Oct. 20 at The Detroit Institute of Arts, states the case more strongly.

"His pastels, particularly of the 1880s, are utterly gorgeous works of art. His way with color, his way with light, his way with texture and surface are just fabulous," Mr. Kendall says in a telephone interview from Paris. "On the other hand, the things he chooses to depict and the way he depicts them almost invariably give them an edge, a toughness, and a strength that you don't associate with purely decorative art."

The exhibition features 144 of his paintings, works on paper, and sculptures. Extraordinarily, this is the first exhibition ever devoted exclusively to what constitutes more than half of Degas's output.

The French artist could justifiably be described as obsessed with ballet, with ballet dancers, and with the Paris Opéra itself. This was the vast, popular institution in which these dancers were trained from childhood.

Kendall and his collaborator, Jill De Vonyar, a trained dancer as well as an art historian, relentlessly searched the Opéra archives for links between Degas's pictures and documented productions, as well as known dancers in his circle. Their work has led to numerous redefinitions and shifts of emphasis in Degas studies.

The two curators challenge the assumption that his pictures follow the caricatures of the day by satirizing the predatory backstage habits of the male "abonnés," or subscribers, at the Opera vis-à-vis the female dancers. He became an abonné himself in the 1880s, and while his pictures certainly did, at times, show ironic awareness of the liaisons of this shadowy world, statistically this was not one of his main themes.

Degas's own connections with the dancers was professional and sympathetic, but there is no suggestion that it was ever amorous. If he was in love with these little "rats" as they were known, it was as a painter. In those terms, his intense interest in every detail of their training, behavior, posture, gesture, and often quite ugly little faces, was much deeper than he admitted to Vollard.

Degas also relished the tulle and gauze and sparkle of their costumes. And rendering their "movement" was unquestionably central to his interest.

Kendall and Ms. De Vonyar convincingly argue that a number of images long have had misleading titles, called "rehearsals" for example, when they probably depict "classes." Such discoveries should prompt the renaming of some works. Their research also demonstrates close connections between recorded ballets (often, at that period, divertissements during operas) and specific images.

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