‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see’ – Edgar Degas
One of my favourite Degas paintings, ‘Danseuses Bleues’ (1890, oil on canvas) hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. It is a painting I know well, from book plates and posters and prints. In one sense those facsimiles show the colours well, provide a good, solid representation of the original. But to my surprise and delight I found that feeling of solidity – the impression of density in the artwork – to be just that; an impression.
In reality I discovered that what these beautiful prints – and my photograph of the actual painting shown here – completely fail to communicate is the wonderfully minimal amount of paint present in the original. I’d studied the French Impressionists at school, fulfilling the theoretical part of my Higher Art curriculum, so had some minimal knowledge of the artistic intention to create a momentary impression of your subject, a mood, playing with light and movement and using short, light brush strokes and strong colours. I knew it, but before my visit to Paris, did not truly feel it.
Yet finally seeing the original painting in the flesh, up close and personal, experiencing in real time that absolute deftness of touch, the merest fleeting impression of surprisingly confident brush-strokes, completely blew me away. There is an amazing translucence and opacity across the whole painting that gives an amost ethereal, three-dimensional quality to the underlying canvas, which remains clearly visible beneath the paint. There is an eloquent roughness, a youthful rawness in the slightly textured surface that adds a vibrant effervescence that sadly becomes lost in translation in the move to smooth glossy paper.
The original painting was 120 years old when I first saw it, but could have been painted yesterday – young ballet dancers in frothy blue tutus, waiting excitedly in the wings, full of life. ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see’… merci beaucoup, Monsieur Degas! 🙂