'The painter of dancers' as obsessed documentarian

"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.

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.

And they can now document Degas's personal acquaintance with almost 50 nameable dancers. The Opéra dancers ranged across a wide social spectrum. Some were as middle class as the artist himself, others virtually snatched from the gutter. Many of the paid models in his studio came from the poorest backgrounds.

All this new research, says Kendall, brings our picture of Degas "closer to the real world of the Paris Opéra as we know it. In other words, many of his images are not fanciful inventions or whimsical notions. They grow out of his fierce scrutiny and deep knowledge of what was actually happening on the stage and in the classrooms."

But this exhibition and book show he was an intricate, complex, almost self-contradictory artist. While he can now be seen as much more literally a documenter of 19th-century Parisian ballet, this still cannot be regarded as his main purpose. He made some paintings of actual stage performances, but he was far more interested in the wings and classrooms. He was just as fascinated by bored or abstracted dancers waiting for work to begin or flat out with exhaustion after it has ended, as by the dance itself.

The character and "typicality" of the dancers absorbed Degas. Yet he became, as the two curators clearly indicate, astonishingly knowledgeable about dance positions and movements.

If the documentary accuracy of Degas's observations have been underestimated, it is also true, to use Kendall's analogy, that he organized dancers within his pictures as if they were chess pieces. "He is an artist. He reserves for himself the right to make good – great – pictures. He does give himself the right to rearrange, to introduce things that he may not have literally seen. In the end, his images are extraordinary inventions."

This is nowhere as true as it is in his "last dancers." In phenomenal color, strenuous drawing, energy, and sinuous rigor, these images are arguably the triumphant culmination of all his dance works. In this late period, although he continued to use dancers as models, his images have less specific connection with the world of the Opéra itself, and more absolute self-sufficiency.

These late dance pictures are instilled with his renewed interest in ancient Greek sculpture, in the frieze and the bas relief. Like the masters of the Italian Renaissance, whom he also profoundly admired, he saw himself increasingly as part of a very old tradition. And he saw ballet itself as the inheritor of classical sculpture celebrating dance.

Ballet, he once told an American collector, "is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks." It is to the credit of Kendall and De Vonyar that they take this remark far more seriously than others have. They show that it accounts for the absolute dedication and seriousness of Degas the "painter of dancers," particularly in the climax of his final phase.

• 'Degas and the Dance' is at The Detroit Institute of Arts from Oct. 20-Jan. 12. It travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art Feb. 12-May 11.

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