Browse and Darby, just around the corner from the Royal Academy, has put on an exhibition of Degas drawings and bronzes to coincide with 'Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement'. We visited with the RA's Degas curator, Ann Dumas, who selected some of her favourite works in the show:
Edgar Degas, 'Grande Arabesque, premier temps', bronze, stamped with signature and foundry mark, AA Hébrard cire perdue, number 18/HER.D. height:19¾ inches "Degas made all of his sculptures in wax. They weren't cast in bronze until after his death in 1917. We can’t be sure but I think it is probable that he never intended them to be cast in bronze and they weren't pieces he planned to exhibit. The only sculpture he actually exhibited during his lifetime was the the original wax version of the famous ‘Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’, [the version at the RA
is a bronze cast made in 1922]. On the other hand, if they hadn’t been cast, our understanding of that side of his work would have been lost.
"Sculpture was a private, experimental medium for him. Wax is a malleable material, it’s almost as if these sculptures are like sketches in which he could work out his ideas, the poses and positions of his figures in an informal way.
"In our exhibition at the RA we have suggested connections between the sequential movement in the stop-action photographs of Muybridge and the French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey and some of Degas’s sculptures, paintings and drawings. We've displayed a group of three dancers in different positions of the arabesque. They are shown together in the same case to suggest that perhaps they should be viewed not as three separate dancers, but as one dancer moving through different stages of the arabesque pose."
Edgar Degas, 'Les Quatre Pensionnaires', circa 1879. Monotype in black, atelier stamp on reverse.
"This is a monotype - Degas would use a metal plate and draw very freely on it with either ink or diluted oil paint. This image was made as an illustration for a novel written by his friend, the theatre librettist, Ludovic Halévy. It was about the Cardinal family, a family in which the daughters were young dancers in the corps de ballet.
"It's a story of behind-the-scenes life at the Opéra with the rather protective mother, Madame Cardinal, that he shows fussing around her daughters and trying to get them hitched up with wealthy older gentlemen protectors, either to become a mistress, or - even better - a wife. There was a slightly shady underside to the lives of these young dancers in the corps de ballet, very much abetted by the mothers."
Edgar Degas, 'Deux danseuses debout', circa 1893. Charcoal on joined tracing paper, stamped signature. 25 ¼ x 20 ½ inches.
"This is a wonderful charcoal drawing from 1893 and is typical of Degas’s late drawing style. The line is much heavier than in his early dance subjects; the figures have more amplitude and the faces are more mask-like. You don’t sense these are clearly defined individuals as much as dancers representing a type. Degas is often more interested in what goes on behind the scenes than what’s actually taking place on the stage. She looks as if she’s resting in the wings, relaxing and stretching, waiting to go on.
"The drawing is done on tracing paper and you can see that he’s added strips of paper to the bottom; he often did that to enlarge the format as he’s working on it. He would then have the very thin paper mounted onto a stronger support – board or canvas.
"This drawing relates to the wonderful late pastels on view in the last gallery of our exhibition at the Royal Academy. Here we have splendid examples of the power and strength of Degas’s late drawing style and also of the extraordinary richness of colour and texture he achieved in his late pastel.
“Degas’s eyesight was failing at this time but I think that this can sometimes be a bit exaggerated in terms of his work. He did this drawing in 1893, but he didn’t die until 1917. It’s true that failing eyesight did stop him working for the last years of his life, but here it seems to me to be an artist completely in control of his powers."
(L-R) Edgar Degas, 'Danseuse attachant le cordon de son maillot'. Bronze, stamped with signature and foundry mark, AA Hébrard cire perdue, and numbered 33/H. Height: 17 inches. Edgar Degas, 'Nu accroupi', executed in the late 1890s.Charcoal on paper, signed. 19½ x 18⅝ inches.
Left: "This reminds me of three photographs of dancers by Degas that we have in the exhibition in which they are turning, twisting their bodies. He's very interested in that sense of torsion."
Right: "This figure is actually a dancer. Degas sort of invented a unique category - the nude dancer. Dancers resting on a bench are a subject that recur in Degas’s work. In our exhibition at the RA, we have a wonderful big in charcoal drawing, of about the same as this drawing here, showing two dancers sitting on a bench, and also a magnificent pastel
showing two dancers in the same pose but wearing blue tutus."
The Browse and Darby exhibition runs until 14 October. Click here
to visit the Browse and Darby website