Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Drawn in Colour

Today I dropped in on the National Gallery to have a look at Drawn in Colour, a lovely exhibition of the twenty-odd Degas pastel drawings and paintings that were collected by the Glasgow ship owner Sir William Burrell and are normally on display in the Burrell Collection in that fair city. This is the first time they have left Scotland together, and happily they will be at the National until next May. You'd be mad to miss them.
 The pastels are of course sensationally good, especially the later ones that show Degas's technique becoming increasingly bold (as in Dancers on a Bench, above). The brilliant Jockeys in the Rain (below), with its slashing diagonals, is one of the stars of the show, and there are several of those extraordinary nude studies of women washing themselves that some people find disturbingly voyeuristic. To me, they seem no more than a life-drawing extension of Degas's predilection for painting people utterly absorbed in their own worlds, as if the painter is an unnoticed presence who has just happened upon them, and has no interest but to draw them as best he can – which is quite preternaturally well.
 More than anything, I loved the pictures of the life – mostly the backstage life – of ballet dancers and would-be ballet dancers. The painting at the top of this post, The Rehearsal, one Degas's earliest ballet pictures, is in oils, and it's quite ravishing, a tour de force of composition, lighting and colour, with a crop that's bold even for Degas. Looking at these pictures, which manage to convey at once the beauty of ballet and the painful, exhausting physical slog of it, put me in mind – inevitably, in the month of his death – of Richard Wilbur's great ekphrastic poem, L'Etoile. The picture that inspired it is not in this exhibition (it's in the Musée d'Orsay), but here it is...
A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance's flight.

Even as she aspires in loudening shine
The music pales and sweetens, sinks away;
And past her arabesque in shadow show
The fixt feet of the maitre de ballet.

So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh.



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