Degas, The Dance Class

Degas, The Dance Class


[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: We’re on the second
floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re
looking at a painting by Degas, “The Dance Class.” And this is a painting that
was, according to the wall text, originally intended for the very
first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but not actually
shown until two years later. SPEAKER 2: Actually,
when you said that, thinking about that very first
Impressionist exhibition, the first moment when this
group of artists decided, you know, we’re not going
to show at the Salon. We’re going to create
our own exhibition space. And how incredibly normal
that seems to us today. SPEAKER 1: But it was radical. SPEAKER 2: Completely
radical to not show in the official exhibition. SPEAKER 1: Now,
didn’t they actually borrow the photographer’s
studio– Nadar– on the Boulevard des Capucines? SPEAKER 2: They did. But there was a real concern
that not enough people would come to see it, they
wouldn’t become known, they wouldn’t become
famous, no one would buy their work,
how would they eat? Because if they showed their
work at the official exhibition at the Salon– SPEAKER 1: Everybody went. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: But I think we know
who the Impressionists are. SPEAKER 2: Yes, we do. SPEAKER 1: So they
were fairly successful. SPEAKER 2: They did the
right thing in the end. SPEAKER 1: There were
some really hilarious– and some positive reviews
and some really scathingly sarcastic reviews– SPEAKER 2: Yes. SPEAKER 1: –of that first
Impressionist exhibition. SPEAKER 2: Well, this a pretty
outrageous painting, really. SPEAKER 1: It does’t look so
outrageous to us now, does it? SPEAKER 2: No, it
looks beautiful to us. SPEAKER 1: It looks
like a snapshot. SPEAKER 2: This
woman in the center whose body comes out of the
two heads of these other two standing women– SPEAKER 1: We have
faces obscured. SPEAKER 2: And she seems to
have her fingers in her mouth. SPEAKER 1: What’s interesting
is that despite the fact that we assume right off
that the ballerinas are beautiful and graceful, many
of the ballerinas– in fact, if not all of them– with
the exception of the one who’s performing,
are really rendered in a very ungainly way. SPEAKER 2: Actually,
she looks even pretty– SPEAKER 1: Ungainly herself. SPEAKER 2: Ungainly to
me, yeah– her gestures. SPEAKER 1: And actually, you
can see what’s happening. This is a little narrative here. You have the dancers
waiting their turn. SPEAKER 2: Waiting, right. SPEAKER 1: You have
the dance master, the male with the staff. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: And then, you
have the one dancer who’s moving across the floor, and
then, the young women who are finished. SPEAKER 2: Right. And the mirror, of
course, that they’re practicing in front
of that gives us a sense of the window
that must be outside of the painting on the
right side, through which– SPEAKER 1: It’s illuminating. They see the city through it. And this is really all
about this new, urban world, this culture of pleasure. SPEAKER 2: The
city, of [INAUDIBLE] of performance and leisure. These women who are
in the back, just sort of hanging out, and
sitting around with their hands on their hips. SPEAKER 1: Well, those might
actually be the escorts, right? SPEAKER 2: That’s
the older ones, not in tutus, are their mothers. SPEAKER 1: Yes, that’s right. SPEAKER 2: And the
ballerinas were the sort of little bit kind of
like the movie stars of today. Right? They were– SPEAKER 1: Even with a
little of that risque– SPEAKER 2: Sought after. SPEAKER 1: And that little
bit of that risque element involved. The notion of the
ungainliness is so clear when you look for it. Look at the dancer who’s
in the very foreground, just in back of the music stand. It looks as if she’s
hiking her tutu up. SPEAKER 2: And someone behind
her, the woman behind her, somehow fixing something
about her tutu by her hips. SPEAKER 1: You’re right. And the other one has
her fingers in her mouth. She’s biting her nails. SPEAKER 2: And we can’t see
the bottom of her body at all. She just– SPEAKER 1: She grows out. SPEAKER 2: Her torso
seems to grow out of these three heads of these
three figures in the front. Another figure on the
left sort of looks out at something
outside of the– This is not a self-contained,
clear narrative, which is exactly what would have
been presented at the Salon. SPEAKER 1: It completely breaks
all the compositional rules that history– SPEAKER 2: And narrative rules. Right? SPEAKER 1: That’s right. But there must
have been something intensely modern about this
notion of an image that seemed so momentary
and so unchoreographed. SPEAKER 2: Right. But of course, we know that
it was graphed by Degas. SPEAKER 1: And of course it’s– SPEAKER 2: And carefully
planned, and mapped, and structured– SPEAKER 1: A perfect
metaphor for the subject. Right? SPEAKER 2: Right. The way that the perspective
of the room is exaggerated, this very asymmetrical thing
that Degas does very often, where the whole bottom
right corner is empty. SPEAKER 1: And look
at what that does. You have this incredible
velocity of the perspective, especially in terms
of the ceiling line. But then– you’re
right– the bottom right is completely empty. And it’s almost doing
a kind of east Asian or Japanese kind of– SPEAKER 2: Asymmetry. SPEAKER 1: Not only
asymmetry, but also creating a kind of flat plane– SPEAKER 2: Right, absolutely. SPEAKER 1: –for us. And in a sense very much
at odds with the velocity of this tension that develops
between the two-dimensionality of the bottom right and the
hyper three-dimensionality of the upper left. SPEAKER 2: That’s right. SPEAKER 1: Of course,
there’s this other issue. We are here viewing
something that is very intimate and
very spontaneous. We, as the viewer, are
much different from that– SPEAKER 2: That people
wouldn’t be allowed to see. SPEAKER 1: Or do we
have the privilege to view, then, of
the dance master. What’s so interesting
is that we’re really about at his eye
level, aren’t we? And in a sense, we are
another sort of view. We have that– SPEAKER 2: Insiders. It’s like having
backstage tickets. SPEAKER 1: Except that
they don’t notice us. SPEAKER 2: No, they
don’t notice us at all. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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