“Emulation is a challenging middle ground between imitation and invention.”
– David Mayernik, Professor of Architecture, University of Notre Dame
It’s refreshing to see older works of art reimagined in a modern context, and the latest photo shoot from Harper’s Bazaar is a breath-taking example of a modern reinvention. Featuring the amazing Misty Copeland posing as the young ballerina of Degas’ celebrated paintings, this blend of paint and photography, past and present, puts a modern twist on the graceful, fleeting dancers of a century ago. Photographers Ken Browar and Deborah Ory preserve the earthy pastels and unique poses of Degas’ ballerinas while capturing the strength of Copeland’s movements and the power of her personality, revealing the transformation of the 19th century girl into a confident modern woman who has perfected her art.
Below are a few examples that I think highlight the blend of imitation and invention in these masterful photographs.
At first glance, these two images appear beautifully similar. The brilliant blue dresses of the principal ballerinas stand out against a gray background and the light peach dresses of the other girls, whose timid poses allow the dancing girls to steal the spotlight with their graceful dance.
Yet Degas’ painted girl moves with youthful excitement and vigor, her face radiant with energy and expression, reacting to the world around her. Her arms bend with the soft curves and open hands of a student still learning the details of her art. On the other hand, Copeland performs the same pose with intense concentration, her face serene and still, focusing inward rather than outward. Her arms form the straightest lines, muscles tightening under her control, while her hands pose with the airy delicacy of a lady in flight. She understands the position of every element of her body and moves with expert control and eloquence, demonstrating the precision of a seasoned artist.
These distinct presentations are enhanced by the physical qualities of the artworks themselves. Degas painted in an Impressionist style, forsaking the crisp details of our natural vision to focus on the impression of a moment, filled with movement, color, light and shadow. But photography captures every pixel of a moment, every shade and hue of color, the most subtle shadows and the lightest curves of a body. Both convey movement in very different ways, and while photography lends itself to the ideals of precision in a ballerina’s performance, Degas’ impressionist painting appears more fleeting and fluid.
Standing in Motion
“[Misty Copeland] has knocked aside a long-standing music-box stereotype of the ballerina and replaced it with a thoroughly modern, multicultural image of presence and power.” – Thelma Golden, director and chief curator, Studio Museum (Harlem)
Copeland’s unique presence makes an even stronger statement in this simple solo photograph. Having overcome many obstacles in life to achieve her dreams, she has broken the mold and shied away from stereotypes and public expectation to forge her own path in life. Far from the flighty girls of Degas’ vision, Copeland breaks through the barriers of a static photograph with the intensity of her movements and the focused determination she brings to each pose. She adds a modern depth to the female image that could not have been imagined in the late 1800s, and this allows us to relate much more deeply to her photographs.
Owning the Stage
A final point: Considering the paintings and photographs you have just seen, ask yourself, “Who is the artist in each work?”
Your answers may surprise you.
In Degas’ works, the key artist seems to be the painter himself, who conveys a personal vision of each scene through the labor of his brush. However, in Browar’s and Ory’s photographs, we perceive the ballerina to be the principal artist of the work. This may reflect our perceptions of the purpose of painting vs. photography. A painting, in very basic terms, reflects the talent of its maker and conveys his/her message. In contrast, the numerous photographs we look at every day are supposed to show us something important, something interesting, creative, novel or strange, not comment on the photographer himself. We are interested in the subject, not the creator, and this allows Copeland to take the stage with more forcefulness than her 19th century counterparts.
As you can see in the photograph above, the vaguely painted figures fade away into the background, while the crisp image of Copeland surges to the forefront. By deliberate design, the modern artist becomes the subject of art as well as the creator. Copeland steals the stage with confidence and maturity, empowered by her physical and emotional strength, both of which can shine through the pixels of her photographs. Imitation and modern invention are thus linked together in an enchanting and moving portfolio, embodying the essence of a brilliant emulation that brings old masterpieces closer to our modern sensibilities.
(All photographs and quotes taken from Harper’s Bazaar, Misty Copeland and Degas: The Art of Dance; Author: Stephen Mooallem)