Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Degas and the Wax Dancer

Sleepless, hot and bothered, somewhere around 2 am, I got up and caught a BBC "Educational".

Broadcast when no one is awake - and almost certainly unwatched apart from the occasional insomniac - these programmes are frequently the best things shown in any 24 hour period. A few months ago I discovered David Hockney talking about how the Rennaisance artists used the 'camara obscurer' to create their ever increasing realism. Goodness, mechanical reproduction and not genius draftsmanship!

Last night there was a programme on Degas and his "14 year old Ballet Dancer".

Like most people who "know " and have seen the sculpture, I assumed the bronze images were authentic. After all, the last one sold went for millions (highest ever price paid in Europe for a piece of sculpture at the time).

How wrong.

Degas never wanted a bronze making of the work - it was his heirs who made a very quick buck by turning over the wax original to a German foundary and getting bronzes cast.

Not only that, the original wax then went through a period of unloved obscurity - stuck in some basement and not heard of until the late 1990's.

Now, considering this was the first sculpture Degas ever made - the first he exhibited, - a piece he refused to sell and kept with him in his studio for the rest of his life, rather a shock really.

Not only that, but the interpretation we now put on the work is very different from the original response of critics at the time.

She's young, she's ugly (made deliberately more ape-like by Degas) she has low morals, (the real dancer probably ended up a thief and a prostitute - as her older sister did, although unlike her younger sister who went on to become a respected teacher at the Ballet School).

She was exhibited originally in a glass case, among portraits of criminals - including two teenage murderers (who also got the atavistic treatment by Degas).

The place she worked as a dancer (The Paris Opera) furnished a special, luxurious gallery where older, respectable, middle-class, married men could meet the girls - and remember she is only 14 - and gave them the opportunity to watch the dancers in rehearsal (remember all those men watching the female form in Degas's paintings and chalks!).

Nowadays she has been bronzed over, postcarded and turned into something quite different - as the programme showed, aspiring young balletrinas now regullarly get sent postcards of Degas's dancer as an inspiration - no hint of the original in it.

Her look of ugly boredom has become intense concentration: No longer a sex object, she has become a female form: The real, preserved in wax, clothing has been half bronzed over, polished art.

The glass case and original companions have gone too, as has the story of the real model.

The shock has simply become sweet.

I am reminded of another 14 year old creation, Juliet. She too has undergone a transition in the minds of the observer - she too has been turned respectable. The emotionally uncontrolled, suicide, neglected by her parents, an object for sale to the most respectable bidder, has become the symbol of true love.

Sheakespeare, like Degas, created something "we" find too unpalatable - so we twist his intentions, make the meaning different and stuff the original in some dusty, damp cellar hoping it stays there and doesn't raise too many questions.

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