Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell at the National Gallery
Upon entering the National Gallery’s Drawn in Colour exhibition, the first thing visitors notice is how dark it is. With no natural light and lower ceilings than expected, it doesn’t seem the obvious place to host a show about a master such as Degas, known for his evocative depictions of ballet dancers and racehorses.
As the wall panel quickly explains, however, the pastel works in this exhibition are extremely sensitive to light and can only be displayed under specific conditions. More than this, though, although we might think of Degas’s work as light and airy, this exhibition reveals a much darker and more intense side to his practice, and the semi-darkness actually lends the experience an appropriate air of drama and even of voyeurism.
Although the presentation is nominally about colour, it is really about seeing and vision. In the first room, a small drawing shows a fashionable woman staring out at the viewer through a pair of binoculars. The effect is unsettling and characteristically modern; we, the viewers, are being observed by the subject.
Although this woman stares back at us, elsewhere the overwhelming sensation is of the viewer as voyeur. Degas’s depictions of women bathing or in states of undress are shocking in their immediacy, sensuality and realism. Their poses are awkward, displaying their bodies unknowingly to the viewer who seems to be, in Degas’s own words, “watching at the keyhole”.
The exhibition is a revelation in the way that it places these images alongside Degas’s better-known depictions of ballet dancers, throwing a new and unexpected light upon the latter. Drawn in Colour also uses technical analysis to demonstrate the artist’s revolutionary approach to the medium of pastel, which he uses to create a dazzling array of varied effects and colours. A far cry from the picture-postcard Degas most people know, this is Degas as a radical artist with a deeply unsettling approach towards his subjects, especially women. This is a darkly fascinating, quality exhibition that elsewhere you would almost certainly pay to see, but the National Gallery is offering it for free: there’s no excuse.
Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell is at the National Gallery from 20th September 2017 until 7th May 2018. For further information visit here.