Degas and ‘Picturing Movement’ at the Royal Academy

Your tardy blogger has finally been to see Degas and the Ballet. Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. A brief visit only, and I shall be returning for a more extensive tour – to learn more about Degas and enjoy his paintings, drawings and sculptures, and not just to admire the exhibits relating to chronophotography – before the show closes on 11 December.

An unrepeatable opportunity to see all of these Degas works, so do try to get to the exhibition if you can. First impressions then.

The catalogue, by Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar is an attractive and engaging piece of research and presentation and great value (reduced to less than £15 at the time of my visit). Muybridge images used include the usual Zoopraxiscope colour photograph (with the top and chimney that don’t actually belong); the colour disc White and Black Running Race; a nice 1889 letter from Muybridge to Frederick A. Eaton of the RA, concerning Muybridge’s forthcoming lectures there; and a single image from ‘Annie G. in Canter’ (Animal Locomotion plate 621) together with an exact copy in chalk by Degas. Many images relating to Marey’s work are also included. The text concerning the relationships between the work of Marey, Muybridge, and Degas is carefully researched and well written and very interesting to read; and of permanent value.

White and Black Race (Zoopraxiscope disc)

The exhibition is spread through several rooms and wasn’t crowded during my visit. There’s a great deal of material concerning the relationship between Degas and photography in general, as well as chronophotography. Most of the Muybridge material relates to aspects of dance postures. One of Marey’s large chrono plate cameras sits in a rather gloomy cabinet in one corner, failing to look interesting. The Zoopraxiscope is better presented, but in a context that raises some questions. In the same cabinet is one picture disc, the 1893 Athletes Running (White and Black Running Race); two athletes, one white and one black, compete in a track race, with a large audience of matchstick figures in the background. This disc is one of the series of drawings based on Muybridge photo sequences combined with imaginary elements – in this case the people watching the race. On the wall above the machine is a large video projection; an animation of a Muybridge sequence of a male athlete performing a ballet-related movement, taken from an Animal Locomotion reproduction of the actual photographic images. Judging from the overheard discussions of those examining this exhibit, visitors are understandably confused. The animation that they’re watching doesn’t appear to have anything in common with the images on the displayed picture disc.

First Ballet Action (from Animal Locomotion)

Of course it’s tempting to animate the Animal Locomotion sequences as the result is very seductive, but it seems to me that this particular exhibit should have had, instead, an accompanying video of a disc animation – perhaps the popular subject Woman Dancing [Kingston EM0052] which is probably the most relevant to the exhibition’s subject – to bring some point to the display of the Zoopraxiscope. The exhibition curators have missed an important trick here, since the animated disc images would have made apparent to the visitor a lesser-known aspect of Muybridge’s work that relates directly to drawing and painting, surely of interest in an exhibition about Degas and movement. The catalogue touches on the production methods of the actual disc pictures and gets it nearly right, so it’s difficult to understand how this misleading display option was decided upon. And since the name of the artist, Irwin Faber, who interpreted and drew these extrapolations from Muybridge sequences is known, that name should have been there too. It seems that there’s still some way to go before art historians apply their usually very meticulous discipline in presenting accounts of technical processes and artist attribution, to peripheral subjects such as Zoopraxography. But there was a certain satisfaction in seeing the Zoopraxiscope back at the RA, after almost 130 years.

More on the exhibition, with less harping on about my own view of its very few shortcomings, soon.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert

(White and Black Race Running Race photo courtesy Kingston Museum)

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