Fitting the brief of paintings that appeal to me, I went first for Degas and his dancers in studio contexts. That led inevitably to his antithesis, Paula Rego and her dancing ostriches which are altogether less delicate. Stuck a little in ‘dancer’ mode, I spotted a painting by someone called Colin whose figures are very nearly symbolic (and which may or may not be in an interior setting), then I pursued the brief in more modern terms with a piece by Grayson Perry which is a crowded and cluttered interior which is recognisably a ‘today’ scene , and finally a traditional, classical painting by Velasquez which is unequivocally of realistic figures in a very elaborate interior.
The Degas (bottom left) juxtaposes what must be a dirty stove, hard and metallic, with a delicate dancer in a soft white tutu. There’s little else here for context which, I think, really makes the physical and functional contrast between the two items unavoidable. Was this his intention? It’s very hard to say but it’s also hard to argue that it wouldn’t be, given his skill and thoughtfulness about composition.
Contrast this with Perry’s very modern piece (bottom right, Stockings and Stealth Bombs), a deliberately cluttered statement piece (maybe) on the chaos but also the informal nature of 21st century life.
Rego takes a very different approach to dancers; there’s nothing frilly or delicate about her Dancing Ostriches (top right), these are real women and they’re inelegantly slouched in what looks like (faux?) leather seats, maybe backstage or in the rehearsal room. Like Degas though, that’s really the only context and Rego leaves us to make up the story for ourselves. Somehow it’s hard for me to see Degas without now also seeing Rego and almost wishing for a street dance-off between the two posses! Who would win? Would Degas’ fairies cheat and use actual magic on the ostriches, or would Team Rego turn feral and just go in with the muscle? One of life’s unanswerable questions.
Colin Ju’s dancers, middle right, are very different from the other two examples. Barely there at all as physical bodies, they somehow say much more about dance than either of them. Maybe it’s the colours, the shapes he makes with the arms, or the contextual vibrancy.
Finally, the classical traditional painting by Velasquez. Unequivocally figures in an interior, this exudes intrigue which I would have missed entirely had it not been for a couple of documentaries pointing out the sources of it. One of these was part of a series presented by Tim Marlow (c 2001). As he noted the various elements contributing to the intrigue, it became clear that this was a moment frozen in time as something happens in front of the tableau of characters. Marlow draws attention to the Infanta surrounded by her handmaids and two dwarfs, all dressed sumptuously, and to the man in the doorway at the back, caught in the act of leaving but turning instead to stay, to the fact that the artist himself is in the painting, in the act of making the painting, which suggests it isn’t the Infanta and her retinue that’s the subject of it, and then to the mirror on the wall behind them all in which two figures can be seen – is this the King and Queen, just entering the room and causing this halt in activity? What Velasquez appears to have done here is to place himself in a position of considerable importance, showing that he is a man who can get away with hinting at the sovereign, at taking prominence himself, albeit in the shadows, and at painting not in a studio but in a gilded room in the palace full of other notable works. I think he’s telling a very clever but possibly risky story and he must have felt very confident in his relationship with his royal patron to do this.
Marlow, T., 2001. Great Artists. Series 1. Amazon Prime. [online] Available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/detail/B07FNFR3BP/ref=atv_hm_hom_1_c_2LIVgA_3_3 Accessed 10 April 2020.
Rego, P. Dancing Ostriches 1995. Part of a triptych. Saatchi Gallery. Sourced online and available at https://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/artpages/rego_paula_dancing_ostriches_4.htm. Accessed 17 April 2020.
Degas, E., Dancer Resting 1880. Sourced online at https://www.edgar-degas.org/Dancer-Resting.html. Accessed 17 April 2020.
Ju, C. Contemporary undated. Untitled. Sourced online at https://www.artworkcanvas.com/products/ballet-dancer-painting-abstract-art-canvas-painting-wall-art-canvas-art-wall-art-original-artwork-abstract-painting-464-p-3487 Accessed 17 April 2020.
Velasquez, D., Las Meninas 1656. Sourced online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez Accessed 17 April 2020.
Time taken: 7 hours.