Edgar Degas: Inspired by Technology

By Stephen Clulow and Neil Maiden

  Little Dancer aged 14.  (Photograph by Kristin Myers Harvey)

We recently visited the Royal Academy’s current exhibition on Edgar Degas, the 19th century impressionist painter famous for his studies of ballerinas and for inventing bold, new approaches to depict them. But you might be surprised, like us, to learn that he was a ‘techie’ and that the latest advances in imaging technology inspired his work and his creative process.

In the second half of the 19th century the pioneers of photography were experimenting with new applications of the medium and new techniques for making images.

The technique of ‘photosculpture’ was developed in the 1860s. A model was positioned at the centre of a circle of cameras and their image was captured from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. The photographs were transferred to clay blocks and used to create a three dimensional sculpture of the person.

Degas adopted this approach and adapted it to suit him. Posing a ballerina and asking her not to move, he progressed around her, sketching her from every angle. Degas made more than 20 sketches of one model and used them to create his famous sculpture ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’. This approach was radically different from the common artistic practise of the time, where the artist remained in one place and asked the model to change poses.

In the 1870s and 80s photographers developed high speed imaging techniques that allowed them to freeze movement. They photographed moving animals and people using multiple cameras to make a series of still images, each one like a single frame from a movie.

Degas studied their images and made drawings from their photographs of horses, nudes and dancers. He incorporated these starting points into some of his most famous paintings, pastels and wax models. His works from that period often show ongoing movement, for example a series of ballet steps.

In the 1870s Degas created a number of long, narrow paintings of ballet classes. This format invites the eye to move from one end of the painting to the other, creating a dynamic visual experience. At the same time photographers were developing panoramic photography. Their cameras used long, narrow glass negatives that moved slowly behind the lens. The image was created gradually as the light moved across the surface. Degas’s paintings are of the same size and proportions as the panoramic photographs of the time. The way we scan across a Degas painting to understand the image emulates the progress of the lens across the glass negative. Degas may have been inspired by early panoramic photographs.

Which got us thinking – if Degas were alive today – what would he be doing? One possibility is that he would be lead animator at Pixar, finding new ways to depict movement in more realistic and challenging ways. Such crystal ball gazing focuses our minds on the complex dependencies between science and art through the ages – dependencies that inform creative thinking.

How are new developments in science and technology influencing your creativity today?

This blog was inspired by the ‘Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement’ exhibition at the Royal Academy, London. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/degas/

Photo courtesy of Kristin Myers Harvey  http://www.flickr.com/photos/designministry/158117949/sizes/l/in/photostream/

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