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Nov 2011 Journal

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Art notes (review)

He may seem inspired by young dancers en pointe, but the work of Edgar Degas is closely attuned to photography and movement. The very title of the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement
(until 11 December), gives the game away. The scientific influences of the new explorative photographers Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge are evident in the movement of his dancers at the barre and in repose, in sketches and pastels (which Degas possibly never intended as more than working drawings), and in the disappointingly few oil paintings on show. Everything is illuminated by contemporary photography and early film.

Degas’s closely observed dancers are often based on photographs. One has her foot on a piano; another rests on a cello. Some of his bronzes are particularly beautiful. Degas also photographed birds and seagulls, clearly seeing a metaphor in their grace and flawless style, for which even the most talented dancer would have to offer hours of pain and practice. It culminates in his most famous work, the sculpture of The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, with her static pose and insouciant gaze, the real material of her dress almost literally woven in the bronze.

It is arguable whether Degas was an Impressionist at all. Critics in 1874 considered him more a Realist or Naturalist, but his empathy is romantic, making his genre less definable. As he studies their movement, he engages with their hard graft and reconciles it with his own. The strength and rigour of their pose, mannered or natural, their physical contortions, the firmly planted feet, all come from careful study of the models who posed in his studio. He recorded multiple positions of a limb. He would later define his work, which became increasingly muscular, as representing ‘movement in its exact truth’. To reach this truth, speed was clearly of the essence.

Another 19th-century artist preferred to haunt his public with gothic images of the end of days. John Martin - Apocalypse at Tate Britain (until 15 January) - used biblical stories and the poetry of John Milton to convey his outlandish and often garish paintings of the fate awaiting sinners – but also the ineffable joys of heaven for the good.

As though inviting some hostile force into his art, Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a masterpiece of swirling colour and energy, was itself nearly destroyed by Thames flood water in 1928. Restored to near its former grandeur, it is on show for the first time in a century.

Biblical catastrophe was Martin’s theme song, from Belshazzar’s Feast to The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He clearly fulfilled a public taste for the lurid and, while popular with Dickens and the Brontes, was shunned by Ruskin and Wordsworth. In works which virtually anticipate Hollywood’s epics, you can sense Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Martin’s work is beloved of science fiction writers and has found its way onto heavy metal album covers. Probably most exciting is the Tate’s son et lumière version of his Last Judgement triptych.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:IN MEMORIAM
next article:On the ruins of Jerusalem (review)