European Masterpieces exhibition to go on show at QAGOMA

French artist Edgar Degas is renowned for his romantic, behind-the-scenes paintings of Paris Opera ballet dancers in tutus. So when Chiara Gonzalez and Laura Tosar saw their first original Degas at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, the two Queensland Ballet dancers felt like stepping straight into the frame.

“It’s spot on. He’s fully captured the essence of ballet dancers and what goes on behind the scenes,” Gonzalez said.

Degas’ Dancers, Pink and Green, c.1890 is in the exhibition European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It opens on Saturday (June 12) at GOMA, its sole Australian venue, and runs until October 17.

Dancers, Pink and Green is one 65 pinnacle paintings in the exhibition which covers 500 years of masterworks by Fra Angelico, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Renoir, van Gogh and many others.

Joint organisers at GOMA, The Met and Art Exhibitions Australia said art gives important sustenance to audiences during Covid-19, so they pressed on with the show despite extra logistic hurdles.

Certainly for Gonzalez and Tosar, both 23, seeing the Degas was a rare treat and they spotted all their familiar actions in the painting.

“She’s checking her ribbons (on her pointe shoes). They have to be tucked in,” Tosar said.

One girl in the painting checked the pins in her hair, while another checked her shoulder strap for twists.

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin, whose dramatic life story is told in the film Mao’s Last Dancer, said Degas’ ballet paintings were much loved by dancers — although they are usually seen only as posters.

“I think everybody (in the dance world) has really grown up with the Degas dancers,” Cunxin said.

“Even when I first came to America from China there was an old poster of one of his paintings on the dance studio wall. I just thought, my God, it’s just so romantic and beautiful.”

Today’s ballet dancers are much fitter than in Degas’ day. A dancer might do 30 performances in the 1890s.

“Ours dance well over 130 performances a year,” Cunxin said.

GOMA director Chris Saines said the show was “a big moment” for the gallery, and easily the most outstanding it has ever offered.

“We’ve been talking to The Met about this since May of 2018,” Saines said.

“We’re delighted and honoured that the show is coming here.”

The author flew to Brisbane courtesy of Art Exhibitions Australia.

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