Alexandria, VA – On Monday, July 20, the National Gallery of Art in Washington reopened the first-floor galleries of the West Wing after a four-month closure due to COVID-19. The Zebra Press was there to revisit the monumental “Degas at the Paris Opéra” exhibit, which was originally scheduled to depart the NGA July 5.
Washington has seen its share of blockbuster art over the decades. The Mona Lisa came to town in January 1963. In just three weeks, over 500,000 people made the pilgrimage to view Da Vinci’s most famous work, including President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
In 1976, the arrival of King Tut was an overnight sensation, kickstarting the term “blockbuster exhibition.” The boy king was the hottest ticket in town. The line to get into the National Gallery wrapped around the three-block long museum. The day the National Gallery announced its impending COVID-19 closure in March, the Degas gallery was elbow-to-elbow with admirers catching what was then believed to be the exhibit curtain call. Zebra Press was among them.
The National Gallery has endured interruptions to major exhibits over the decades. The Vermeer show was a ticketed event. It was shuttered when the government shutdown in 1995, but with Congressional offices having priority access to reserved tickets, the result was a major brouhaha among the masses who had paid Ticketmaster for access.
Government shutdowns have meant an abrupt finale to several NGA shows since then, including “Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes 1909-1929” in 2010 and last year the shutdown interrupted “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” a retrospective of the iconic African American 20th Century photographer.
“Degas at the Paris Opéra” had only been open three weeks when the National Gallery, the Smithsonian museums, and most DMV private galleries and exhibit spaces suddenly closed in March. The expansive exhibit celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opéra is curated by Degas expert Henri Loyrette and the National Gallery curator of 19th century French paintings, Kimberly A. Jones, along with Leila Jarbouai and Marine Kisiel of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. While there have been numerous Degas ballerinas on exhibit over the years, this is the first museum exposition devoted to the Impressionist’s adoration of the Opéra.
The exhibit features one hundred items representing the best known works of Degas‘s magnificent obsession with the corps de ballet and the opéra world. The breadth of the work is spectacular, expressed in a variety of mediums, culminating in the beloved lifelike sculpture of a young ballerina, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the prized Degas of the National Gallery of Art collection. The mixed media incarnation of the defiantly posed and poised teen incorporates human hair, silk and linen used for the ribbon, tutu and slippers dressed upon a cotton faille bodice evoking a sense of organic movement that brings vibrance and life to the form.
Individuals portrayed in the paintings and studies on display were often people Degas knew well, from the dancers, singers, and musicians to the patrons and “subscribers” ̶ performance aficionados who paid dues to have access to all areas of the famed opera house, including the young and beautiful talent. Shadowed subscribers depicted as waiting watchfully in the wings convey an almost unseemly predatory stance. The mysteries and magic of the staged fantasy world, as well as glimpses of its darker side, are revealed in equally balanced suggestion of untold stories beyond the frame.
The genius of Degas’s masterful reinvention of composition defies traditional approaches to setting a scene or telling a story upon canvas or paper. Beginning in 1879 Degas began a series of paintings he referred to as “elongated” due to their exaggerated length compared to their width. Despite their being reminiscent of Italian Renaissance procession paintings and wall fresco decor popular among the French aristocracy, these revolutionary elongated paintings were daringly unlike anything Degas’s contemporaries attempted. It is said that Degas detested the term Impressionism to describe his painting style, perhaps because his unconventional compositional approach was both studious and born of a protracted observed realism.
Common to many of Degas‘s compositions, arms and legs as well as faces, heads, and torsos appear in part as often as whole, entering and exiting the frame, beneath the curtain, just inside or outside a doorway. In the elongated works, the eye is taken to the diagonal across the composition from one corner to the opposite. The combined effect suggests movement into and out of the painting and engenders a feeling of being there. By utilizing this technique, Degas invoked the intimacy of not only the voyeurism of the subscribers, but also his own rapport and keen appreciation of the Opéra artists.
In these times of COVID-19, when we can’t enjoy a performance of the ballet or opera, least of all travel to the storied Paris Opéra, a visit to the National Gallery of Art is a welcome diversion for young and old. Timed-entry reservations are made online a week in advance each Monday at 10 a.m. The museum closes at 4 p.m. with the gift shops, cafeteria, and Cascade Café closing at 3:30.
Only the first floor of the National Gallery’s West Wing is accessible at for now. Entrance and reservation check-in is at the Constitution Avenue doors. Masks must be worn at all times, with at least six-foot social distancing maintained outside your social bubble.
“Degas at the Paris Opéra” has been extended until October 12, 2020. Come for the backstage pass to French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ homage to the legacy of the world-famous Paris Opéra. Stay for the incomparable art on exhibit. Imagine you are in Paris at the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay whiling away the hours, or before the curtain rises at the Paris Opéra, savoring a cappuccino or gelato by the waterfall under the glass pyramid and perhaps taking in a little Champs-Élysée shopping.
Bon voyage! Send us a postcard.