Olivier Assayas's film on the aftermath of May 1968 is infantile ultra-leftism
LIKE I say, I get around. Sometimes, though, I even surprise myself.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) challenged the complacent illusions of the haute bourgeoisie into which he was born through his paintings.
An active member of the Independents - later known as the Impressionists - he never practised the broken-brush work and outdoor painting for which that group became known.
But he shared their passion for modernity.
Rejecting academic art's idealisations of form as dishonest and sentimental and its mythological or religious narratives as escapist irrelevancies, Degas captured the essence of modern life with raw truthfulness.
Refusing to weave comforting or moralising stories around his subjects, he represented the multifaceted, fast-growing urban life in which social classes mingled.
Prostitutes eye up clients from cafe terraces and the bourgeoisie attend the races and the opera where they are entertained by jockeys, orchestras, singers and dancers.
Educated in the French classical tradition Degas retained its commitment to drawing as the basis of art and to crafting the finished works from numerous sketches and studies in the studio.
But he radically broke academic rules, especially those of composition, whereby a box-like, illusionary space was filled with symmetrically organised groupings placed centrally to create an artificial, orderly world.
Partly influenced by photography but above all by Japanese prints, Degas invented audacious compositions and formal devices which conveyed the experience of the new, fast-moving city life.
He lived through the period when documentary photography revealed new ways of seeing.
These were represented in asymmetrical composition, oddities of scale and perspective, arbitrarily cut-off figures, artless groupings, the awkwardness of human posture and non-classical physiognomies.
From Japanese prints Degas learned to simplify and flatten forms, use very high, very low or oblique angles of vision, retain bold outlines, allow vast "empty" areas of the canvas to balance busy ones and most of all to use asymmetrical compositions, frequently dominated by diagonals.
The resulting dynamic compositions imparted a dangerous precariousness to his subject matter which remains startling.
Our eyes are forced to flit from side to side and back to front within the paintings and prints in a way which echoes the endless surprises provided by the act of looking, particularly in busy places where movement is the only constant.
An example is The Rehearsal (1874) composed around two diagonals on either side of the painting while the centre is left bare.
On the far right a dancer is sliced in half while another's calves and feet dangle in the top-left corner as if dismembered.
The movement of the dance is echoed in the movement of our act of seeing and in works such as The Dance Lesson (1879) he used wide, narrow proportioned canvases in which to push these innovations to the limit.
Degas's fascination with the ballet was perhaps partly due to his sharing that art form's own obsession with purity of line, but also to his concern with observing the informal.
Dancers hold difficult arabesques but are also shown behind the scenes, sitting awkwardly, scratching, gossiping or crowding in the stage's wings.
The exhibition's theme purports to demonstrate Degas's "engagement with the figure in movement in the context of parallel advances in photography." Interesting information and insights are provided but some points are tenuous and all could be made more succinctly.
Too much space is padded out with artefacts such as a 19th-century camera, copious documentation about panoramic photography and photographic sculpture and early film.
An entire room is filled with Muybridge and Marey's chrono-photography.
Meanwhile, uncomfortable and contradictory issues of class, eugenics and gender raised by Degas's dancers are ignored.
It is ironic that these are now seen as innocuous greeting card images suitable for little girls since in their day the Paris Opera's working-class corps de ballets were viewed as potential sexual partners for the male bourgeoisie.
A backstage corridor was reserved in which the latter could peruse and select their nubile and agile prey.
Degas's monotype of one such encounter is missing from the exhibition.
His famous sculpture The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1881) is contextualised with its preparatory drawings to claim that Degas "tracked his subject with a cinematic eye," yet it predates the first films by almost two decades.
That he originally showed this sculpture with drawings demonstrating the physiognomy of the "criminal classes" to emphasise this link with his model is ignored.
This was evident to contemporary audiences, with critics describing the child as a "vicious character" with a "lecherous little snout."
This exhibition reflects the current art establishment's own conservatism, which seeks novel interpretations of art which avoid engagement with its social and political contexts.
Yet Degas cast a cold eye on his own society to produce some of the world's greatest realist works.
Do go if you can afford it - the full admission price is £14 - but view the curating with a critical eye.
Runs until December 11. Box office: 0844 209-0051.
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