It was at the Paris Opéra that Degas found the whole world – and his own tormented self

Philip Kennicott

THE WASHINGTON POST – In 19th-century France, the Paris Opéra was a machine. It was there that narrative and music, art and design, science and technology were transformed into cultural spectacle. Those spectacles had enormous influence on public and private life, as much, perhaps, as Hollywood does today.

So, on one level, it’s no surprise that an artist such as Edgar Degas would turn his attention to the ballet and opera, painting musicians and dancers, in rehearsal and performance, and sometimes offering glimpses of people like him, passionate audience members watching from gilded boxes. But an exhibition first seen in Paris last fall, Degas at the Opéra, and now restaged at the National Gallery of Art, raises a deeper question: Why are these works so strange?

Why, for example, does Degas’ 1867-1868 portrait of Eugénie Fiocre, a principal dancer with the ballet, show the young woman caught between a landscape and a stage set, with what seems a real horse drinking from a real pool beside her, and her ballet slippers cast off? Has she danced off the stage into reality? Or has the painter’s imagination done what so many minds do in the theatre – fleshed out the illusion into something that seems as or more real than anything outside?

And why, in one of the painter’s most acclaimed paintings, The Ballet From ‘Robert le Diable’, is the orchestra arranged so oddly, with an audience member prominent in the front, looking not at the ghostly nuns dancing onstage, but sharply off to the left? And why are so many of these paintings, especially of the young women of the corps de ballet, arranged like elongated landscapes, often with a sharp diagonal running through them, as if the painter sees the world aslant through thin, rectangular glasses?

Degas and the Opéra includes about 100 works, including many of the artist’s most essential images inspired by the Paris Opéra, which included both opera and ballet among its offerings. This iteration of the exhibition, which opened at the Musee D’Orsay, is smaller but more easily navigated: In Paris, huge crowds and a complicated gallery arrangement made it seem episodic. Curated in Washington by the National Gallery’s Kimberly A Jones, the show follows both the rough chronology of Degas’ decades-long fascination with the Opéra, from his early portrait of Fiocre to works made late in life.

Edgar Degas’ 1867-1868 portrait of Eugénie Fiocre, a principal dancer with the Paris Opéra Ballet. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

These vibrant pastels, some quite large included the stunning Dancer With Bouquets, in which two bouquets cast at her feet look like red eyes, staring up the underside of her tutu.

The exhibition also covers the basic typology of Degas’ theatrical paintings, from those inspired by particular works, including Giacomo Meyerbeer’s early grand opera Robert le Diable, to paintings of imagined dance rehearsals, the rectangular “elongated paintings” and images he painted on fans.

A final gallery devotes necessary space to the life of the dancers, many of whom were impoverished young women exploited by wealthy older men given predatory access behind the scenes. The National Gallery’s beloved Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, a wax sculpture of a performer named Marie van Goethem, stands near the end of the show, her defiant three-dimensionality giving voice to the anonymous two-dimensional dancers seen in paintings earlier in the exhibition.

Some of these works have become so familiar that they have been reclassified in the public imagination, now seen as pretty rather than strange. But if you look at them long enough, their strangeness begins to overwhelm their prettiness, as in that late pastel of a dancer with those two red bouquets, which seem less like tributes thrown by passionate fans and more like menacing eyes. In other images, bodies are truncated, just legs showing beneath the partially raised theatre curtain, or fused together, as in drawings in which dancers seem to be sharing or missing legs.

Degas’ fascination with ballet was in part a fascination with the contorted body, with legs akimbo, feet going in opposite directions and knees splayed wide. Poses that are dynamically beautiful in ballet often seem bizarre when frozen in a photograph or painting, and Degas was clearly drawn to the visual possibilities of taking them out of context. The familiar and the defamiliarised is a recurring theme, and one essentially derived from theatre, a safe space where we expect to see strange and alien things.