'Imagination will take you everywhere'
An orgy of colour is on display at the National Gallery to mark the centenary of Edgar Degas’s death; but look closer at his ethereal ballet dancers and intimate nudes and you will find a disconcerting undercurrent of misogyny.
Edgar Degas caught people unawares. Ballet dancers in rehearsal, women bathing, jockeys racing; his artistic eye has cast over them all. His paintings have that indistinct quality made famous by the Impressionists, as if the viewer is looking through a rain-specked window or a soft mist has suddenly appeared. Like him, we are an outsider looking in. This dreamlike state is heightened as you descend the spiral staircase into the basement of the National Gallery and find yourself in a darkened room bedecked with Degas’s dancers floating like celestial beings on the walls.
100 years after the French artist’s death, the National Gallery has borrowed 20 Degas pastels from the Burrell Collection to display alongside his work from their own collection. It is these magnificent pastels that take centre stage; “Orgies of colour” was how Degas described his later, more abstract pastels. Indeed, they are bursting with vibrancy and emotion. Flecks of fluorescent green and orange on the tutu of a ballet dancer, brightly hued flowers woven through the hair of Russian dancers – his expressive mark-making capturing the energy of their movements. But look closer at his work and a darker presence emerges; old men stand watching the girls from the sidelines.
There is no mistaking the voyeuristic undertones. In the mid-1880s, Degas shocked contemporary audiences with his depictions of women bathing and combing their hair. Despite the majority of his work focusing on women, he observed the opposite sex as if they were another species – like the racehorses he loved to paint, they were simply another animal to look at. This exhibition is a successful celebration of one of the founding fathers of Impressionism. But scratch the surface of his work – full of faceless females drenched in the male gaze– and you will find a misogynist staring back.
Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, National Gallery, London, free to enter. From 20 September 2017 until 7 May 2018.