30 October 2011

Degas and the Ballet at the RA

Just as with the impact of Darwinism on religion, we are still absorbing the effects of photography on visual art. Until the last 40 years or so, photographic images were always the result of chemical reactions produced by the action of light, and originally these were slow. The first camera image, a positive made by NiƩpce in France in 1825, took eight hours to be formed. By 1840 negatives were being made by Henry Fox Talbot (at Lacock in SW England) with exposure times in minutes, but still not fast enough to capture movement.

A rapid succession of innovations meant that by the 1870s dry plate photographs could be taken in a few seconds. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that some artists began to turn away from camera-like exactitude in landscapes and portraiture and became more interested in the effects of colour and light. However startling these impressionist pictures may have been when first exhibited in 1874, they have come to be regarded as some of the most accessible and widely-enjoyed forms of art, as well as being some of the most expensive. Degas’ paintings of dancers must be among the most popular images of all.

The full title of the current Royal Academy show is Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. As well as offering some delightful balletic pictures and sculpture, the exhibition directs attention to the influence of photography on Degas’ preoccupation with capturing the nature of motion. Muybridge and Marey’s techniques for turning dynamic motion into a sequence of static images are explained in some depth with contemporary photographic equipment on display. Appropriately, the exhibition ends with a brief motion picture, taken by the director Sacha Guitry, of an elderly Degas walking in the street.

Well worth seeing, Degas and the Ballet ends on 11th December, to be followed early next year with a show by another popular artist, also fascinated by photography and the use of the camera. David Hockney A Bigger Picture will display his new landscapes and explore his use of cameras from Polaroid to iPhone.

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