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Knowing the financial implications of hosting such a show are critical to its survival, the RA has provided the public with a wealth of Impressionist players over the past five years – Impressionists by the Sea (2007), The Unknown Monet (2007), Impressionism Abroad (2005). In fact many galleries around the world return to the Impressionists in times of need; they’re timeless crowd pleasers, guaranteed to make for healthier balance sheets. I have nothing against this. Galleries like the RA need regular fixes of household names to survive and to promote themselves, to ultimately carry on showing their collections to you and I for free. But often this model is to the detriment of the appreciation of the works themselves. Often the minutiae of artistic movements are lost in over attended, chaotically arranged exhibitions lacking any thematic consideration save that of the stylistic label attributed them.

Degas and the Ballet, however, gives no cause for concern. The exhibition is a triumph.

The subtitle of the exhibition is ‘picturing movement’, and this is completely consistent throughout. If Monet was the king of capturing movement in time in nature, which he called ‘sensations’, then Degas was the master of movement with the human figure. The Impressionist brush painted quickly to capture fleeting moments in time and Degas saw that the style suited his need to capture the instantaneity of the human body.

Featuring the work of Eadweard Muybridge, Ettiene-Jules Marey and the Lumière brothers, the exhibition is almost as much in homage to early experimental photography and film as it is to Degas. Which, considering its influence on his work, is a great thing.

The organisers have been meticulous in their presentation of each room; I can’t ever remember such a multi-sensory experience in an exhibition of pre-20th century work. Anyone from amateur art lover to leading art historians will leave the gallery feeling that they have witnessed and understood the best of Degas. This for me is the RA’s greatest achievement.

I hadn’t really prepared myself for how the exhibition might begin but you find yourself in the opening octagonal room, completely blacked out except for three white-lit silhouettes of a ballerina rotating 360 degrees in the style of late 19th century sequential photography.

The greatest part of the exhibition is the third room with a humorous photomontage film of the photographer Nadar in a swivel chair set alongside Degas’ much-admired Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880-1). His wax sculpture of a ballet student from the Paris Opéra, dressed in real clothing and a wig is experimental in itself, but his method of preparation, in a series of twenty sketches at different viewpoints, completely encircling his subject, is totally revolutionary.

Such is the amount to absorb in a trip to Degas and the Ballet you really need multiple visits.

by Edward Lines

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is on at the Royal Academy until 11th December 2011

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