September 13, 2011 / 3:01 PM / 6 years ago

Despite chocolate box image, Degas a "radical"

<p>Darcy Bussell, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet poses in front of "Dancer with Bouquets" by Edgar Degas at the Royal Academy of Arts in London September 13, 2011.Paul Hackett</p>

LONDON (Reuters) - He painted and sculpted ballerinas -- lots of them. But the "chocolate box" image attributed to Edgar Degas hides the real story of a radical artist, according to a curator of a major new exhibition at London's Royal Academy.

"Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement" opens on September 17 and runs until December 11 in the Academy's main exhibition space, and features around 85 works by the French Impressionist.

As the title suggests, the show focuses on Degas' preoccupation with movement, and puts it into the context of scientific advances of his age, particularly photography and cinema.

"What is most frustrating is that people like to see him as a charming artist and even as a pretty artist," said co-curator Richard Kendall, surrounded by late Degas works of dancers painted in rich pastels.

"Actually, he's a very tough artist and a very innovative artist at the end of his career and as radical as anyone," he told Reuters.

"I encourage people to think of him in terms of pop art," said Kendall, adding that Degas embraced new techniques in art and photography and may have championed cinema too had it come earlier.

"He was a cool guy".

One of the central exhibits of the show, sponsored by asset management group BNY Mellon, is a bronze cast of Degas' famous sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen".

The wax original was the only sculpture exhibited by the artist during his lifetime, and caused a sensation in 1881 in part because it looked so real.

"Glorified Prostitution"

Hostile reviews suggested some critics would rather see the romanticised image of a dancer rather than a life-like portrayal of a teenage girl dressed in a fabric tutu and a wig of real hair.

One critic wrote that the girl depicted was likely to become "a woman whom diplomats will fawn over one day".

Kendall said Degas' portrayal was closer to the truth.

"People think of this dance as an elegant art form in Degas' day, but there were other layers of meaning.

"Some of these dancers had to find themselves a wealthy lover and at some level it was a kind of glorified prostitution."

From the time Degas took up painting dance subjects in the 1870s, his work intersected with photography, although in the early years the spontaneity of his images outdid more "wooden" photographs in which the subject would have to pose motionless for an extended period.

But as photographic techniques improved, Degas became more interested in the medium, buying a camera in 1895 when he was 61.

Over the following year, he had what Kendall called a "typical Degas whirlwind romance with photography", always "messing about in the dark room."

Other great contemporary innovators were devoted to the depiction of movement, notably Eadweard Muybridge and French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey whose experiments were known to Degas.

The painter turned mainly to pastel after the mid-1880s, developing his own fixative to allow him to build up layers of colours without them clouding together.

The Royal Academy's magazine calls his series of pastels of dancers from the late 1890s "the triumphant culmination of Degas' career".

The final room of the exhibition features a short clip of black and white film showing Degas walking along a street in his old age, by now almost blind.

The footage was taken by director Sacha Guitry, who had asked Degas if he could film him for a documentary but was turned down.

Degas died two years later in 1917 aged 83.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato

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