Edgar Degas and Gerhard Richter were born almost 100 years apart, yet their work demands comparison, argues Sebastian Smee. Two major new exhibitions reveal the artists’ shared obsessionsby Sebastian Smee / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Degas’s images often resemble snapshots, but works such as The Rehearsal (1874) were painted before cameras could take instant photographs
Degas and the ballet: Picturing movement Royal Academy, 17th September to 11th December, Tel: 020 7300 8000
Gerhard Richter: Panorama Tate Modern, 6th October to 8th January, Tel: 020 7887 8888
Think what it took to take a photograph in 1890. Imagine a big, cumbersome camera, and then all the necessary paraphernalia: the tripod, the heavy plates, the chemicals, the black shroud. Then, too, the difficulty of getting the light right, and the necessity of making one’s subject—a ballet dancer, let’s say—remain absolutely still not just for a second but for minutes at a time. After that, the dark room, more chemicals, more fuss—a thousand and one ways to go wrong.
Now picture a modern, handheld video camera—a cool and ergonomic camera phone, perhaps. Someone pulls it from his pocket during rehearsal and hands it to the dancer in question. She presses her thumb to the small screen, then holds it as she pivots en pointe, turning and turning, faster and faster, as her fellow dancers, the theatre, the lights, the smattering of bystanders in the audience all blur into one streaming image of abstract colour and light.
When I think of Edgar Degas and Gerhard Richter—both towering artists of their eras, both deeply conscious of photography, and both the subjects of major shows in London this autumn—I try to keep in mind the difference between these imaginary scenarios—one of them stilted, slow, yet intriguingly alchemical; the other high speed, frictionless, dizzying, effortless, evanescent.
Born in 1834, just one year before the appearance of the first daguerreotype, Degas witnessed the invention of high-speed stop-motion photography just as his career was peaking in the late 1870s. Less than two decades after that, he saw the first moving pictures by the Lumière brothers.
Photographs themselves were ubiquitous in Paris throughout most of his career. They were used in advertising and on the cartes de visites that became the rage after they were patented by André Disdéri in 1854. These cheap two-and-a-half by four inch photographs were used for personal images of relatives and loved ones, as well as to promote celebrities and politicians. They even helped to make some of the ballerinas Degas depicted into celebrities.
Degas was trained in the classical tradition, but in his art he frequently responded to the…