Sunday 18 March 2018

What Lies Beneath: The Star

The Star by Edgar Degas, pastel on paper, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

The Star by Edgar Degas
The Star by Edgar Degas

Niall MacMonagle

We don't always get things right. When Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address the local newspaper, The Patriot, reported that the President had "acted without sense" and announced to its readers: "let us now pass over his silly remarks".

Claude Debussy's La Mer, composed 1903-1905, was "persistently ugly" according to the New York Times in 1907, having "more of a barnyard cackle in it than anything else". And Degas was called a "peeping Tom" and a "most disgusting and offensive" artist by The Churchman in May 1886 for depicting ballet dancers in dressing rooms, in rehearsal, in the wings.

But not everyone was offended or disgusted by this work, dated circa 1876. Painted when Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was in his early forties, it is one of Degas's most famous and popular pieces and though he painted jockeys, nudes, portraits, "A Cotton Office in New Orleans" and "At the Stock Exchange", ballerinas rehearsing, resting, performing provided subject matter for Degas for more than half his output.

Light and shadow, movement and shape create an immediacy. The young dancer, smiling, eyes closed, looks lost to the freedom and joy of dance and that diagonal line gives the soloist her very own space. This young dancer takes to the stage and behind her the painted coulisse (a new word for me - the flat piece of scenery at the side of the stage), the other dancers awaiting their turn, a black-suited man (the ballet-master perhaps?).

We are in the spotlight and in the wings. Her black ribbon, the flowers on the girl's costume and in her hair pick up on the background colours. Her gracefully outstretched arms, the pointed right leg, the left leg hidden beneath the diaphanous tutu spell elegant beauty. If a dancer's crushed feet bleed we do not dwell on that.

All is viewed from above, from a box at the side of the stage, and though it is often said that a figure seen from above diminishes a presence, this centre-stage ballerina isn't reduced or made unimportant in any way. Degas called it L'Etoile or The Star. This star is a bright spark. She shines.

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