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Ballerinas, brothels and cities that never sleep

October 05, 2005|Lacey Krause | Associated Press

LONDON — Edgar Degas' classical ballerinas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's lusty cancan girls share the stage in a new exhibition at the Tate Britain.

"Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec," which opens today, focuses on the vibrancy of city life at the end of the 19th century in Paris and London -- their brothels, bars and theaters.

"It's an exhibition about cities and about the human body in that city," curator Richard Thomson said. "So it's about, I thought, fraternity, filth and flash. That's what you get in this show."

It's also the first time Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and British artist Walter Richard Sickert have been the focus of one show. The exhibition also features works by contemporaries Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and James Whistler.

The paintings, drawings, pastels and lithographs depict the quickening pace of metropolitan life at a time when Paris and London were developing as major cities.

Many capture chaotic street scenes. Rapid streaks of paint show the dynamism and movement of the time -- emblematic both of rapid change in modern cities and of a new, emerging style in modern painting.

Other works concentrate on new modes of transportation -- crowds waiting at a train station or travelers leaning over the bow of a ship.

Degas is the exhibition's pivotal figure. He experimented with cropping, unusual angles and off-center composition to create a sense of spontaneity in his works. These techniques are reflected in paintings by his colleagues and contemporaries, many of them, including Sickert, admirers of the reclusive Degas.

The show also displays the artists' love of the human body and its movement.

Several of Degas' well-known works of ballerinas are on display, including "Two Dancers on the Stage" and "The Rehearsal."

Sickert's paintings of nudes, many of which are in the exhibit, show his attempts to modernize how the human figure is depicted. His works show women in intimate situations -- washing their hair, reclining on a bed, dressing in front of a mirror.

The exhibition also hints of the artists' penchants for the darker sides of the city.

Degas' "L'Absinthe" launched a heated controversy when first displayed in 1893. The painting shows not only the poisonously alcoholic green drink but also two people who are addicted to it. Some critics proclaimed the painting a masterpiece, but others condemned it.

"There was a complete divide between critics who thought this subject couldn't be allowed," said Anna Gruetzner Robins, a curator. "You also had critics who said the subject matter couldn't be taken into consideration."

Although Toulouse-Lautrec was Parisian, he spent a great deal of time in London, where he was known primarily for his posters and commercial work. A traveling dance troupe commissioned his "La Troupe de Mademoiselle Elegante," depicting a group of cancan girls.

The show runs at the Tate Britain until Jan. 15 before going to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., from February to May 2006.

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