It always makes me deeply uneasy to see modern ballerinas like the wonderful Misty Copeland, along with celebrated ballet companies, and even young girls and boys fresh to ballet, take to Edgar Degas’s ballet pictures as if they were some sort of grand affirmation of their art.
They’re really not.
Copeland appears in a new series of photos for Harper’s Bazaar, posing in re-creations of works by Degas.
Degas was an anti-sentimentalist. That is a big part of what made him so great — and also, oftentimes, so unpleasant. But art isn’t about being pleasant.
Degas was for truth-telling.
Ballet, by the time Degas became interested in depicting it, was in the middle of an inglorious period. It had sunk, as the art historian John Richardson wrote, “to the level of kitschy interludes in operas — interludes that allowed bored operagoers enticing glimpses of women’s usually concealed legs.”
Degas knew the Paris Opera, the grand building where the great ballets of the late 19th century were staged, inside out, and he was ruthlessly selective about what he chose to portray.
But “to an almost perverse degree,” as Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall wrote in the catalog for their 2002 exhibition, “Degas and the Dance,” “he favored the back-stage classroom over the performance and the bare corridor over the glittering crowd.”
Life was unbelievably hard for the girls who made up the corps. One writer of the time described seeing them in the backstage rehearsal room (a favorite hangout of Degas) “exhausted, almost dead, puffing like a steam engine,” their faces “multi-colored” with fatigue.
But they were not only poor and half-starved, they were as often as not forced, by economic necessity, to make themselves sexually available to the affluent male abonnés, the weekly subscribers or “stage-door Johnnies” as Richardson described them, whom Degas portrayed chatting them up in areas specially set aside backstage.
These poor girls were commonly known as “les petits rats,” the little rats, and Degas, who also called them his “little monkey girls,” was precisely interested in this sordid aspect.
He showed the dancers in gauche poses, seated on benches and leaning forward to stretch their aching backs or tie up their slippers. He showed them scratching their backs, guzzling water, or standing, bored, before a lecture by the ballet master.
So his pictures are partly about the stuff Copeland knows all about: all the staggeringly hard work that goes into perfecting this crazily, but often sublimely, unrealistic art form. They are about the tension between truth and the ideal, which can only be glimpsed, “slippingly” (to borrow from a famous remark by Willem de Kooning) and which is usually at odds with reality.
They are also, to a tremendous degree, about color, bodies, clothes, form, and a sense of time as fleeting and transient. In this sense they epitomize a new, modern way of seeing.
But they are also modern in another way — in their brutal lack of sentiment. They are about voyeurism. They are about the unselfconscious, animalistic side of women and the predatory nature of the men who take advantage of them. And they are about physical weight and suffering.
In other words, they are about stuff that most of us don’t want to think about when we go to the ballet.
Degas doesn’t care. He catches the squalor just as much as he catches the brilliance.
Modern ballet companies — eager to pander to people’s expectations of the whole winter-sparkling myth, the unreality, the artifice — want to show us only the brilliance. So do magazines like Harper’s Bazaar.
Pop! Another illusion shattered.
But don’t blame me. Blame Degas.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.