Edgar Degas, 'Dancers in Blue', c.1890 Paris, Musée d’Orsay, don du Docteur et de Mme Albert Charpentier, 1951/Photo © RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski If the words ‘chocolate box’ spring to mind when you see Degas’ ballerinas, then think again. Because, argues Ann Dumas, co-curator of Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, ‘Degas was one of the most radical, experimental artists of his day, fearlessly pushing beyond accepted boundaries in both subject and technique, and embracing the technological discoveries of the exciting age in which he lived’.
Degas conducted his artistic experiments through his representations of the dance. The RA exhibition is the first to bring together these works with the photographs and films that spurred his imagination to create dazzling paintings like Dancers in Blue. He chose dancers as a subject because, he wrote, ‘for me, the dancer was a pretext for… rendering movement’.
In our interview with the ballerina Deborah Bull, she says she would like Degas to have painted her because he captures the everyday rigour of being a dancer – warming up, stretching, preparing to go onstage. Indeed, it is these glimpses of dancers’ daily life, painted with a dynamism and colour that leap off the canvas, which make Degas’ pictures so enduringly modern.
Of all the modern art movements, Russian Constructivism was arguably the most radical. In his introduction to Building the Revolution: Soviet Architecture 1915-1935, Arkady Ostrovsky writes, ‘The Revolution offered a stage, a canvas and a building site on an unprecedented scale’ for architects fired by a desire to build a new utopia free of the inequalities and the traditions of the past. They did so with some of the most striking and original architecture ever built, until Stalin’s rise to power in 1929 sounded their death knell. Their legacy endures in the spiralling forms of Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealised tower, an inspiration for generations of modern architects, writes Hugh Pearman, while Clementine Cecil assesses the varying fortunes of the avant-garde buildings that remain.
Abstraction, so crucial for the Constructivists, has been reinterpreted by generations of artists. Sculptor Nigel Hall RA, for example, is known for his minimal, monochromatic forms. So it comes as a surprise to discover that he finds inspiration in figurative drawings from his travels.
Abstraction takes a different form in the passionate paintings of John Hoyland RA, who sadly died in July and is warmly remembered by his fellow Academicians.
The Constructivists created visionary clubhouses and communal housing for workers, with space for the arts. But they probably never imagined a bunch of miners taking an art class and becoming successful painters. That is exactly what happened with the Pitmen Painters in the North of England in the 1930s – a group immortalised by Lee Hall’s play of the same name, which is being revived in the West End. The playwright, who comes from a similar working-class background, comments: ‘What was very beautiful was a climate where people wanted the riches that culture could provide,’ rather than material gain. ‘I’m troubled by… what we have lost.’
I was editing that interview as the riots were raging across Britain, and it struck a chord. Whatever the causes of the violence and looting, what does it mean when a segment of society feels no connection with its culture, no longer respects shared values? Someone who discusses this lucidly is Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company, who wrote a powerful article in The Independent arguing that when young people feel cut adrift from society, they have no sense of empathy for it. The arts can help connect people. I was proud to learn that the RA provides free workshops for Kids Company – the next is during Degas – inviting underprivileged children to see and make art, to discuss images and ideas, widen their perspectives. This is, of course, a drop in the ocean. But if a few young people walk away from violence, as those at Kids Company did during the riots, it’s a start. Can beauty save the world, as Dostoevsky (and the Constructivists) famously hoped? Probably not, but it is better than the alternative.