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Degas defies limits in “Dancers at the Barre”

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It’s the fall of Degas. On Saturday, the Phillips Collection will open a show called “Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint,” the first exhibition in Washington to focus on the artist’s dancers in 25 years. Last week, London’s Royal Academy of Art opened another Degas dance show, “Degas and the Ballet.” And Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is turning its gaze to another aspect of the artist’s depiction of the female form in the show “Degas and the Nude,” which will open next week.

For some artists, three simultaneous shows would be overkill. In Degas’s case, it’s a fitting tribute to an artist who continually repeated himself, exploring figures in the same poses over and over, trying out different media, different angles, different combinations of line and color. Degas made more than 1,500 drawings, paintings and sculptures of dancers from the 1870s onward: pastels, oils, monotypes, wax models that were later, mostly after his death in 1917, cast in bronze. There’s plenty of material to go around.

The Phillips show centers on its own painting, “Dancers at the Barre,” newly restored and scientifically analyzed to reveal layers of underpainting demonstrating the care, the repetition, the echolalia of this thoughtful, restless, obsessive artist. The carefully balanced image has become iconic: two women who seem to be one organism, their torsos and limbs emerging from a single blue semicircle of diaphanous skirt, against a wall of contrasting orange. Degas’s visual dance is based on opposing colors, counterbalanced figures, gravity and weightlessness. In his ballet works, the limbs are the defining features, strong and modeled and earthly, while the skirts seem to float, clouds defying the limits of the body.

Degas defies those limits, too. In sketch after sketch, he works to establish the vertical pole of a dancer’s body, the central axis of the weight-bearing leg. A full-size study for “Dancers at the Barre,” on loan from Ottawa’s National Gallery, shows a supreme awareness of the anatomical forms beneath the skirts; a nude pastel study from the 1890s tries another take on the same composition. And X-rays reveal that the painting itself, begun in the early 1880s, was worked and reworked; the Phillips displays the underpinnings in an adjacent room in a series of superimpositions that reveal a whole cloud of phantom limbs beneath the bodies, like evocations of movement.

The process was one of increasing abstraction. At some point in the work — Degas continued to return to the canvas for 20 years — he moved the lower foot and leg of the nearer, right-hand dancer, elongating them beyond realism, giving them a gestural truth instead of a literal one. The dancer takes flight. Poised on a stalk of leg that would fit no human body, she is freed from the laws of gravity.

Degas’s images of dancers are about the making of art. The idea is implicit in the drawings and sketches, and explicit in paintings such as “The Ballet Rehearsal,” which shows dancers at rest, dancers practicing — dancers who are about to make, or have just made, dance, but who are not formally doing so at the moment.

In other works, the link between a dancer’s body and a painter’s brush stroke is made manifest as Degas turns limbs into strong gestural components in intricate, frieze-like compositions. An interlacing of arms moves dynamically across the canvas, above the floating cloud of tulle skirts. The body is subservient to the composition: heads, faces, arms are cut off by the edges of the canvas or paper. Often, the main space is blank: an expanse of floor stretching beneath the feet of distant figures, a great wash of light, the empty canvas on which the dancers will create. There is always, in these works, a great attention to surface, and the intersection of figure and ground, foot and floor: tipped with shadow, or luminous in a slipper of satin.

The relationship between three-dimensional bodies and two-dimensional surfaces is another of the chief dualities in these works. In the 1890s, Degas began to work mainly in pastels, a medium that allowed him to fuse his sense of color — all those opposing tones: pink and green; blue and orange — with his prodigious gifts in manipulating line. Color, in the pastels, is applied in a hatching of lines so regular as to be almost geometric, so that even as it gives the illusion of dimension to the drawing, it reaffirms the flatness of the paper.

At the same time, the artist was dispensing with paper altogether in his wax sculptures, using them as another way to revisit the same poses, over and over, with the same rigor and discipline as the dancers themselves. On paper, he often depicted the same figure from several angles; the sculptures contain the angles within themselves, and show myriad facets to a viewer who walks around them. They were conceived as sketches; Degas exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.” The Phillips show represents it with a smaller, unclothed study that echoes the gawky, thrust-bellied, unconscious grace of the better-known work.

The Phillips show attempts to contextualize Degas, showing the artists who influenced him — it’s no surprise, looking at his works, that he venerated Daumier, with his fluid sure lines, and the loose dancing light of Delacroix — and those he influenced, in a rather random-seeming sampling of smaller works. A Bonnard lithograph of a woman in the bath is a nervous dappled fleshy form that fetters light, as if in a cellulite trap: a stark contrast indeed to the strong certain free-flowing rivers of Degas’s daylight lying along the curve of a woman’s back.

Time does bring a change, though, to the gestalt of Degas’s dancers. The later pastels here are less about frieze, more about form. Instead of lines of action, with flowing arms and legs, we get increasingly solid figures, dancers set in stone. A 1903 “Dancers in Green and Yellow,” on loan from the Guggenheim, turns the stage into a soft cloudscape with big puffy shapes that seem made of marshmallow.

Another duality in these images is that between the extreme artificiality of compositions that were worked and reworked over years and the snapshot sense of immediacy, of fidelity to the original models. You can tell a lot about dance of that period from looking at these images; so, at least, says the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who based his 2004 “Swan Lake” on Degas dancers (the Phillips show includes video of a German performance of the production).

Degas was faithful to many small details of the Parisian dance world. He spent hours at the opera house on the Rue Peletier, getting to know the dancers, depicting them in their environment — and continuing to paint the rooms even after the building had burned down.

But “Dancers at the Barre” shows exactly the moment at which painting leaves the limits of the literal — the hard-earned, 20-year process through which Degas was able to take flight himself.

Degas’s “Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint” will be on display at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 8, 2012.

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