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Edgar Degas The Star (L'etoile)
The Star (L'etoile), painted between 1876 and 1877, is a pastel on monotype work from the prodigious documentarian and 'painter of dancers', Edgar Degas. Renowned for his expansive body of work and relentless study of young ballerinas and performers, Degas began using pastels early on in his working life when his eyesight began to decline. What is remarkable about many of the 1500 studies, pastel works, and canvases that the artist completed on the subject of dancers, is that so few actually depict a performance taking place. Instead, Degas preferred to depict his subjects in rehearsal, stretching, discussing inconsequential things, or simply awaiting instruction. For this reason The Star (L'etoile) is unique in his body of work, for it reveals an individual who is, for reason of advertising or arrogance, described as the star of the show. Resonating with grace, poise, and balance, Degas draws all the viewer's attention to the craft of this young performer. Surrounding her seems to be merely an expanding vacuum – a technique achieved through a constant revision and evolution of representation. Posture and position are caught in a breathless moment of transition, as the dancer-star pauses in this frieze of momentum and self-aggrandisement.
This moment of ephemeral grace rendered by the painter is counterposed by the dark spectre of a man on the stage, clothed in a brooding costume. His malevolent presence monitors the movements of the dancer, his face hidden from the viewer's. Such a sharp juxtaposition between the ghostly figure and the sensual performance of the woman is a common trait in Degas' oeuvre. A painter of modernity and the experience of Parisian urban life, the artist filled his works with social signifiers and caustic criticism. The Star (L'etoile) is a painting of that fleeting and impossibly brief moment wherein the exhausting rehearsals, demanding regime, and brutal schedule of the young, often exploited, dancers reach its brief zenith. Beckoning her on with applause or congratulation, the brooding figure on the right of the stage is both dazzled and unimpressed, and cast as a symbol of the over-fed society for which the lives of these young performers were no more than that of a day-labourer.
Performing her arabesque, Degas' dancer enacts a composition as refined and complex as the work itself. This eloquent and elegant fusion of form and content is one of Degas' most profound and resonant images from his immense body of work.
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