The Idea of Truth

It is widely recognised that Degas’s paintings have a photographic quality, especially those depicting ballet dancers, horse racing and informal social events.  He achieves this with figures that are cropped and positioned off centre, with a concern for movement and gesture and with an ability to evoke unstructured passing moments.  It is now accepted that his paintings were aided directly by contemporary photographs.  The caption to Dance Examination, 1880, included in the exhibition ‘Degas: a Passion for Perfection’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, includes a quote from the artist: ‘One gives the idea of truth by means of the false’.  As a painter he choose the composition and had no need to crop figures on the edge of the frame if he merely wanted to portray a ballet dancer, consequently those figures are false, not what he saw nor what he could have painted.  But because they are cropped, fragmentary, they convey the truth of what it is like to glimpse the changing scene and hence they fulfil his intentions.

Much photography relies on a similar deception.  We may believe that the camera doesn’t lie, that it gives the idea of truth.  But the view point and moment of pressing the shutter (and much else) are down to the photographer and the result is at best a truth, a partial view of reality and any conclusions we draw from it may be entirely false.  We convey a truth with a lie – or a truth and a lie.

Photos: 1. Dance Examination, 1880, Edgar Degas; 2. Afloat, sculpture by Hamish Black, Brighton, 2011

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