The National Gallery of Art’s “Degas at the Opéra” is a spectacular and memorable experience for many reasons. It’s the first major show you’ll probably go to in a pandemic, for one.
But it’s also a truly blockbuster exhibition, packed with 100 paintings, pastels, drawings, etchings and sculptures by the iconic French artist Edgar Degas. A celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opéra’s founding last year, the show opened for almost two weeks at the start of March before shuttering. It’s now set to run to Oct. 12, and it’s a must-see if you’re interested in visiting a museum at this time.
“It’s about music and dance, and it’s about one man’s passion — a lifelong passion for the Opéra,” curator Kimberly A. Jones told The Washington Diplomat. “Frankly, I think it’s something that people can really connect with, someone who loves something so deeply, so intimately, that it inspired him to create these amazing works of art. And that’s something I think that transcends language, that transcends country.”
As a Degas skeptic — yes, we do exist — there is a certain apprehension any time I approach the artist’s work. Is there more to be said, truly, about his appreciation of movement? Of the human form? Can I really look at one more ballerina?
Waiting in line to enter the space on the social distancing dots outside the exhibition, overjoyed to be back in a museum for the first time in months, I vowed to remain open to Degas. And after checking out the show twice, I can safely say that “Degas at the Opéra” caters to both fans and Degas skeptics like myself. Perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it has me completely rethinking my long-held stance on Degas.
The show is a welcome relief from the often laser-focus on the dancers, while still embracing the artist’s obsession with movement and theatricality. The centering on the Paris Opéra does allow an immediate opportunity to reframe Degas, and even his ballerinas emerge in a new way under the stage lights.
The show basks in Degas’s obsession with dance and movement, but it feels fresh and revealing. Degas reveled in repetition — of movement, of themes, of women lined up in a row. This exhibition somehow both embraces that and reshapes what it means for his artistic practice.
The NGA has the third largest collection of works by Degas in the world, Jones said, so it was a “logical partner” for this exhibition with the Musée d’Orsay. It also features many works from private collections, often rarely seen.
“You go to the exhibition and you see we have a painting that came from Japan, we have works from Basel, we have works from all across the United States, from Paris, from Switzerland, and you realize that this exhibition is global. The love of Degas, it transcends. There’s work around the world, and we bring these pieces from around the world and unite them. Isn’t that what diplomacy is all about, bringing people together?” Jones said.
There’s an immediate stunner in room one, “Portrait of Eugénie Fiocre,” Degas’s first painting associated with the Opéra. Lush and languid, it’s a pastoral dream that hints at the artifice behind the scene with ballet slippers tucked under the horse’s legs. What is performance, this and other paintings in the show seem to ask? Does Degas want you to think he’s captured them at a moment of authenticity, or is it all an act?
Degas’s interest in the observer and the observed plays out in each gallery, feeling all the more claustrophobic as he depicts the “subscribers,” the male patrons of the Opéra who had special access backstage. He centers his paintings on interesting, unusual vantage points — below the dancers, straight into the orchestra pit — rethinking who the central characters are and what the main action is meant to be.
Also noteworthy are the collections of fans and panoramic friezes on display. Degas created decorative fans beginning in the late 1860s, and eight of these are on view here.
“We reunited Degas’s painted fans and his frieze paintings. There are eight fans, and I think that’s the most Degas fans ever united. And then to have the frieze paintings in this beautiful room, the way they all sort of flow and speak to each other and say so much about how he organizes his composition, how he plays with different media, how he’s thinking about how works interact with one another — they look so beautiful in that space. So that room in particular for the fans, especially, is really unique. You’re never going to see this again, I think,” said Jones.
In his oil paintings, he’s not precious about his brushstrokes, and images move between the ghostly and ethereal in a flicker. And in his most stunning later works, his paint reveals what he called “orgies of color.” Incredible contrasts of red, blue, yellow, orange and green are built on layers of paint on massive canvases, turning into spectacular images that offer a culmination of Degas’s vision, even as he was physically losing his eyesight. In these works, the vibrant, fevered style finally mirrors his take on the stage.
A highlight is “Four Dancers,” a strange and dreamlike view of the ballet, haystacks and perhaps only a single figure. It feels both indoors and outdoors, static and moving, real and artifice.
And lastly, but most importantly, many thanks to the gallery and the staff for reopening and giving Washingtonians an opportunity to wander through the West Building ground floor at such a difficult time. In addition to the required timed ticket entry for the entire gallery, visitors may need to factor in pre-booking a visit for the show itself as it enters its final month — the central spaces do get jammed up from time to time, and it’s a little ironic to find yourself stuck in line waiting in the “Bodies in Motion” room — but the NGA has done a really impressive job welcoming back museumgoers.
If you feel comfortable going to a museum at the moment, I can’t recommend “Degas at the Opéra” highly enough. There’s also an excellent virtual tour on the website if you’d prefer to view the show from your home. I can’t wait to see it again, and to keep rethinking Degas.
“Degas at the Opéra” runs through Oct. 12, 2020, at the National Gallery’s West Building, 6th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW. A timed entry ticket is required. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit nga.gov.
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.