Monday, November 28, 2011

Degas at The Royal Academy

Ah such delicate jellyfish! The 1950s copies of the National Geographic featured, in perfect technicolor, underwater photographs of the billowing skirts of mysterious creatures of the sea, off on secret missions we will never understand.
Here, back through history in starched ballet skirts, is an underworld of rehearsal: gloom, stretching and secret communication that the master of the unusual palette, Degas, tapped into on coloured paper, slipping us a pale green shine on tidily coiffed black hair, and gleaming white tights on pointy-toed stretched legs.
These pale pierettes convulse into strange physical shapes that challenged even this master draughtsman (there are some mistakes here, I think, that were he still alive he might wish to bin); some rather long mismatched limbs and torsos whose legs have shifted uncomfortably to the right. But his genius is colour, and not only that: the ability to convey body-weight. His ballerinas are embodied and sometimes even tired; sometimes they stand pre-rehearsal as light as feathers, and sometimes they stand posing solidly, having finished their exertions, patiently waiting to take the weight off their feet.
The exhibition concentrates on motion rather than colour, but if you ignore all the other stuff about film and photography (although there are three beautiful photographs he took in 1895), you can soak up the atmosphere of France in the 19th Century. The most unusual painting is the Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera Robert Le Diable, in which the ghosts of nuns rise vaguely from a stage in the background; between them and the heads of gentlemen in dark suits (we see the backs of their heads and their various ears), is the orchestra, lit up in yellow, the tops of their bassoons profiled against the stage lights and looking like old-fashioned rifle-butts aimed at the dark caverns of the opera-house ceiling. Magic!
It's much darker and fuller of contrast than this in real life:
So  now before the student gig, I'm listening to Electro Swing: French, of course.

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