Debbie Caulfield recently discovered the beauty of Edgar Degas’s work, an artist who became disabled by depression and blindness in later life.
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement was a buy-one-get-one-free bargain. It focussed on Edgar Degas’s preoccupation with the figure in movement, setting this alongside the development of photography. He mingled ballet pictures with sculpture, cameras and movies.
Degas considered photography inferior to painting. Despite this, he owned a camera and used photographs to aid his compositions and memory. Degas was both intrigued and inspired by the pioneering stop-action photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Ettienne-Jules Marey. These had opened up exciting ways to depict the figure in motion, capturing shapes, gestures and positions not previously seen.
For his time, Degas was old school. Classically trained at École des Beaux Arts under a pupil of Ingres, he was rooted in the discipline of drawing. He once stated: “Do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seem to be chance… not even movement.” (Edgar Degas).
Although he’s often referred to as an Impressionist, Degas was nothing of the sort. “No art is less spontaneous than mine” he said. The practice of plein air (to paint outside), which Monet and Renoir often used, was not for Degas. The light and air in Degas’s paintings derive from careful composition, a deep understanding of tone, and excellent draughtsmanship.
An example of Degas’s brilliance is The Dance Lesson painted around 1887. It has a sketchy feel, yet the drawing is precise; nothing is accidental. The movement takes place in the spaces between the dancers, and in the wide ‘cinema scope’ format.
For half his life Degas battled against depression and a dread of blindness. As his eyesight deteriorated, he adapted accordingly. Sensitivity to light kept him indoors. A scotoma made detailed work difficult, leading to a looser, almost impressionistic style in the mid 1880s. Throughout, his compositions remained highly structured and deceptively random.
By his mid-forties Degas had lost his central vision. Later, his models had to identify colours for him. By age 57 he could no longer read.
Degas wrote: “How awful it is not being able to see clearly anymore! I have had to give up drawing and painting and for years now content myself with sculpture… But if my eyesight continues to dim I won’t even be able to model any more. What will I do with my days then?”
By 1908 he had stopped sculpting. In his last years Degas filled his days walking the streets of Paris.
In 1915 a young film maker, Sacha Guitry, asked Degas to appear in his documentary film about the great French artists of the day. Since any kind of public posing was anathema to Degas, he refused, much to Guitry’s annoyance.
The final exhibit, a clip from Guitry’s film Ceux de chez nous, made most impact on me. Guitry had set up his camera in the street near Degas’s house, knowing he would soon be passing. The clip shows pedestrians grinning into the lens, fascinated by the strange contraption. From the crowd Degas emerges, slowly walking towards, and then past, the camera. He is completely unaware that he is being filmed.
By Debbie Caulfield
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