When you’re admiring Edgar Degas’s serene ballerinas over the coming months, take a second to consider the nightmare this exhibition was to pull together.

Degas: A New Vision is by far the most complicated in the National Gallery of Victoria’s history. Works have come from all over the world via 65 lenders. (To put that in perspective, Warhol | Weiwei had four).

“The crate for this would be the size of a living-room sofa, at least,” says the NGV’s senior curator of international art, Ted Gott, as he looks at a medium-sized painting. “Some of the crates are the size of automobiles. That’s why, sadly, we have to charge you admission.”

It’s worth the ticket price. The exhibition will take you through 200-plus works that cover the Parisian artist’s hugely varied life and career (1834–1917) – from precocious youth, to pioneer in observations of daily life, to a master of human form and movement.

Impressionist or realist?

Although Degas associated with the Impressionists and took part in their exhibitions, he was vocal in his disdain for the style – and lost a number of friends because of it.

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“He fights with them because he hates the term ‘Impressionist’,” Gott explains. “He says, ‘I’m a Realist. I don’t do “impressions” of nature’. ‘I’m a real artist’, is what he means. ‘I’m not a lazy outdoor painter’.”

Apparently, when he was older and quite curmudgeonly, he joked with his friends about how, if he were in charge of France, he’d have soldiers throughout the French countryside with rifles fire on Monet and his friends. Not to kill them – just to make them scurry back to their studios and do some hard work for a change.

Degas was a meticulous artist who sketched “riffs” over and over again, drawing versions of the same subject hundreds of times until he understood it inside and out. This is how he became a master of human form and movement.

His famous paintings of ballet rehearsals were not done on the spot – they were reconstructed in his studio from memory.

"Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier" 1872, oil on canvas

“He hates painting before the subject,” Gott says. “He hates painting out of doors. He hates nature. He says Impressionist painters are really lazy. He says get your easels back in the studio and work from your memory and your imagination. Because it’s hard. He doesn’t want to do anything easy.”

A fascination with work

Over his 50-year career, Degas fixated on subjects in a variety of environments: ballet halls, race tracks, brothels. His subjects are captured in in-between moments: waiting, rehearsing, preparing.

“The link is it’s all about work,” Gott says. “Jockeys, horses, ballerinas, seamstresses, laundresses, shopgirls, sex workers.”

"The laundress ironing" c. 1882–86, oil on canvas

In a monotype print called Waiting, naked prostitutes flop on a lounge, legs spread. It’s not erotic.

“He shows the exhaustion, the lassitude, the boredom. Also the camaraderie at the time between the ladies. They’re sympathetic portrayals of hard-working women,” Gott says.

“He’s showing the invisible people that enable the glamorous society of Paris to function. And art lovers are not expecting to see this.”

The dark underbelly of Parisian life

At first his wax sculpture, The little fourteen-year-old dancer, seems innocent: a plucky teenage girl, hands behind her back, nose in the air and foot pointed sweetly outwards in a dancing position.

"The little fourteen-year-old dancer" 1879–81, cast 1922–37
bronze with cotton skirt and satin ribbon.

But when it first exhibited in 1881, “she shocked the socks off everyone”, Gott says. “The critics recognised this was a portrait of a part-time prostitute.”

This was at a time when people believed you could identify “criminal tendencies” by facial structure. She fit the bill.

“She was called a beast, a monster, a Neanderthal. A vicious little street fighter. She was called everything under the sun,” Gott says.

What Degas was exposing was what high society didn’t want to know about.

Ballerinas at the time lived on an extremely low wage, so to survive many worked as prostitutes.

“He was showing the underbelly of the opera, which respectable people didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to know that these gorgeous ballerinas had to work by night as sex workers to stay in the game.”

This dancer, in real life, disappeared at 16 without a trace.

“He’s holding a mirror to the upper classes. He’s saying, you created a situation where this girl has to sell herself. What are you going to do about it? And the critics didn’t like that.”

Liberating the female nude

In the very last Impressionist show in 1886, Degas showed a room of female nudes and shocked everyone again. They stunned not only because they were unglamorous and curvaceous, but because they were ordinary women.

"Woman in a tub" c. 1883, pastel

The images of naked women bathing were particularly shocking because in bourgeois and upper-class marriages at this time, husbands did not see their wives naked – although it was a privilege those same married men might pay a premium for in a brothel.

He brazenly showed what respectable husbands didn’t want their wives to see – and women saw what their husbands paid to see at boudoirs.

At the time, these images were misinterpreted as voyeuristic, misogynistic and humiliating because the bathing subjects don’t appear to acknowledge Degas’s presence.

What Degas had begun to do was liberate the female nude from the belief that women had to be perfect Venuses riding clamshells.

“He’s asking us to accept that ordinary people are beautiful in themselves,” Gott says.

New frontiers until the end

The exhibition concludes with Degas discovering a brand-new medium in his old age – photography. One of the final images of the show is an autoportrait of a white-bearded Degas (a selfie, in fact), with a curled-up, naked woman in the background.

It’s a joke, perhaps: him with a serious expression and hand on chin, posing with a big, fleshy, female bottom.

The collection of dark photographs (he always shot indoors at night, “because it was hard to do” – unlike those lazy outdoor Impressionists) show an artist as relentless in his older years as he was in his youth – still curious, still stubborn, still unwaveringly facetious.

Degas: A New Vision shows until September 18 at NGV International.