Degas and the Ballet, Royal Academy, London

A show that should be about movement is oddly static, exposing the power games the artist played

Here, centre-stage, is Degas’ The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: one of the best-known images in art and one of the best-loved. She is undeniably cute – about a metre tall, so that the diminutive stature of the sculpture’s model, Marie Van Goethem, is made more vulnerable, with that weary pertness of an adolescent told to hold a pose. This, though, is only one of the ways we see Degas’ tiny ballerina, which is why we just can’t stop looking at her.

The other ways of seeing her are mostly unpleasant. This particular Petite Danseuse, in a show at the Royal Academy called Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, was made in 1922. She is one of a troupe of such dancers, Degas’ widow having allowed 60-odd to be cast in bronze from a wax original after the artist’s death in 1917. The first, the one Degas made, was shown at the Impressionist exhibition in 1881: it is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and, I assume, too frail to travel. Our little dancer comes from the Tate. In certain respects, she is near enough to her wax ancestor for the substitution not to matter. Which is to say that she is small and cute, but sinister.

In part, the trouble is that we see her, as Degas insisted we should, in a vitrine. La Petite Danseuse is not just a little girl: she is a little specimen, something from a science or ethnography museum. Her stature is less small than shrunken, as in shrunken heads; her bronze flesh seems mummified. As Degas must have known it would, the tulle of her tutu has faded and frayed, so that the work has the air of a pubescent Miss Havisham. But even this is not the problem with The Little Dancer.

Any work of art is an exercise in power. It says, in the artist’s voice: this is how I see, and so how you must. Degas was rising 50 when he did the many drawings for La Petite Danseuse. Ballet dancers were known to supplement their wages by sleeping with men. This 14-year-old girl may be in a vitrine because she is a specimen, or because she is for sale. As we look at Degas’ sculpture, we are forced to become him looking at Marie Van Goethem; to see with a gaze that is, at best, ambivalent. But there’s yet another problem.

Ballet is all about movement, and traditional sculpture does not move. In the power-games being played around La Petite Danseuse, Marie scores one victory: she is a dancer, and yet we must dance around her, circle while she stands still. The flashpoint between motion and stasis has fascinated sculptors since Polykleitos. Degas’ fascination with contrapposto – the exact moment where movement could take place but doesn’t – isn’t so far from Michelangelo’s. The difference, maybe, is that the act of looking is implicit in his David; in The Little Dancer, it is explicit. As its glass box tells us, Degas’ work is all about how we see.

So far so good. This show does a wonderful thing in bringing together 26 of the drawings Degas made of Marie as he circled her, re-assembling them by viewpoint: back view, side view, as though she is turning when it is Degas who turns. Sometimes he moves quickly – two sketches are whittled down to a few chalk lines – sometimes less so. He looks in so many ways, and such vexing ones, that it seems inevitable that the outcome of his looking will be complex and vexatious. The power of The Little Dancer lies in there being no one way of seeing her, which is where my quarrel with the Academy’s show lies.

In 1839, the pompier artist, Paul Delaroche, famously spluttered, “From today, painting is dead!” He had just seen a daguerreotype, an early form of photograph. Much has been written about the subsequent attempt of Impressionism to take on photography by adopting its traits – cropping, close-ups, scenes of everyday life – and much of what has been written has been fascinating. There is no doubt that Degas was at the forefront of this movement, and that his response to photography was complex: in 1895, he bought his own camera, and used it in his studies of dancers.

I can’t help feeling, though, that Degas is first and foremost a painter of intimacy, and that to hang his works in their dozens in academic rooms is to harm them.

To reduce them further to a single way of seeing – a photographic way, as this show does – is to lose the complexity that makes these apparently pretty images so powerful, so difficult.

The catalogue to this show is excellent, its comparison of Degas’ method with those of the photographer, Paul Nadar, and the motion-sculptor, Étienne-Jules Marey, deeply interesting. But a book is not an exhibition, and I’m not sure this show should have been staged.

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