Edgar Degas, the master of ballet painting who created some 1,500 artworks of dancers, and his obsessive creative process are explored in “Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint” at DC’s Phillips Collection from October 1, 2011 through January 8, 2012.
The exhibition, as glorious as it is illuminating, is based on one of Degas’s numerous masterpieces, “Dancers at the Barre”, which he revised repeatedly between the early 1880s and 1900.
The show brings together some 30 related works — exquisite paintings, drawings, and sculptures — created during the more than four decades Degas (1834–1917) experimented with depicting dancers.
He revised and refined relentlessly, compulsively striving for grace of line, balance, elegance – much like ballet dancers in their endless repetition of barre exercises. Another parallel was hard work, always seeking perfection.
Degas has been compared also to “a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling…never admitting that his work has reached its final stage,” said poet and art critic Paul Valery.
The inspiration for the exhibit came to Phillips’ head of conservation, Elizabeth Steele, in 2007 when she began restoring “Dancers at the Barre” to rescue it. This was its first restoration since 1944, when purchased by Duncan Phillips, who founded the museum 90 years ago on November 5.
Steele told a press preview she discovered that Degas had repositioned the dancers’ legs (eight times), their arms and heads several times, used his thumb to dab paint on a ballerina’s neck, and even cut down the canvas after he had begun the painting.
“Dancers at the Barre”, which Steele restored to its original luminous aquamarine, white, and black against a fiery orange background, is flanked by full-scale pastel and charcoal sketches for it. Some of the earlier versions are reunited here – the exhibit’s only venue – for the first time since they left the artist’s studio a century ago.
One of the “greatest surprises was finding a portrait of a man, probably his father Auguste De Gas, underneath ‘The Dance Rehearsal’,” Phillips head curator Eliza Rathbone told the press walk-through.
An x-ray revealed the portrait. Another surprise in “The Dance Rehearsal” – Degas made few changes in the painting, probably because it was sold soon after completion in 1873, Rathbone added.
One of the most exciting parts of the exhibit are the sculptures, she said. They were all cast posthumously; “Degas sculpted in wax, and even stuck corks and brushes in the sculptures.”
An inventory of Degas’ studio after his death itemized “150 wax sculptures, some crumbling with dust, others in pieces. All were thought lost, but were found in the 1950s…” and brought to Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Rathbone said.
One particularly revelatory sculpture is “Nude Study of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”. It relates to his most famous sculpture, “The Little Dancer”, whose realism stunned the public when first displayed in 1881.
In this study, the gangly ballerina-to-be’s position isn’t nearly as captivating as it is in the dressed version. Mainly, her right foot is far less turned out. In ballet, it’s all about the turn-out.
Asked whether Degas ever took ballet lessons himself, Rathbone laughed. “No, but he observed it so much; he breathed it…,” she told me. “But he did pride himself in his physical mobility. He walked around Paris a lot, even when he was elderly, and his eyesight was failing, and he became dispirited. His last five years were sad – He didn’t do any work.”
One of the many outstanding aspects of the exhibit is a display of 21 works by his “circle” of key contemporary masters. Degas collected their art, and amassed about 3,000 works.
They include significant pieces by his mentor Ingres, who advised him “draw lines, many lines”; by his other favorite painter Delacroix; his friends Manet, Cezanne, Cassat; also by Matisse, Gauguin, among other leading artists around Degas’ time. Of these 21 paintings, all but one are in The Phillips Collection.
While ballet certainly inspired and influenced Degas, his art continues to influence ballet. The exhibit includes a video clip of a German company’s performance of “Swan Lake”, with costumes and sets reminiscent of Degas’s artworks.
Its choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, choreographer and former soloist for New York City Ballet, offers insights on the cell phone audio tour as well as the catalogue, “Dancers at the Barre” (published by the Phillips in association with Yale University Press). Rathbone and Steele wrote the richly illustrated catalogue.
Wheeldon says about the artwork “Dancers at the Barre”, “…that’s exactly what dancers do when they warm-up…they go to the barre and …they push the muscles to a point where they get warm.”
That’s exactly what this exhibition will do — warm you, and also delight and inform you.
You’ll appreciate the Degas ballerina, that treasured image, more than ever through this exploration of the master’s 40-year striving to replicate the exquisite beauty of ballet.
For more info: “Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint” October 1, 2011 through January 8, 2012. The Phillips Collection, www.phillipscollection.org, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC. 202-387-2151. Admission $12, discounts, www.phillipscollection.org/visit/admission/index.aspx. Related programs www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions/degas/programs.aspx include a talk by Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre on the exhibition, with demonstrations by Washington School of Ballet trainees and a ballet basics class on October 6. One very special day and program is “Phillips Collection Day” November 5 — the museum’s 90th anniversary — when admission will be free, and include performances by guest ballerinas from DC’s Kirov Academy of Ballet. Washington’s Fairmont Hotel, www.fairmont.com/washington offers a “Degas’s Ballerinas” $289/night package, including accommodations for two; two tickets to the exhibition; and other related items, 800-441-1414.