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ART : A Lesson in Admirable Crustiness : Met’s Hit Degas Exhibit Leaves a Bitter Aftertaste

Culturally literate citizens have the feeling they know the art of Edgar Degas. He seems to have invented whole unforgettable chapters in our picture book of 19th-Century Paris. Who has not been charmed by his stumpy ballerinas and leggy horses? Who has failed to smile at his weary laundresses or pretty young things staving off boredom by trying on hats at the milliners? Is there anybody out there who has not at some time admired his probing classical draftsmanship, daring perspectives and chic Japanese croppings?

There is something indelible about the way he captured the suffusing artificial stage light at the opera and found eternal balance in the gymnastics of a nude trying to dry her foot while standing in a brass bath basin.

A very long time ago when looking at reproductions of Impressionist art was still a challenge, Degas provided links back to safer times. One was grateful that he anchored the excitement of the new to the stability of the Greeks and the precision of Ingres. One was refreshed by an artist who didn’t get sentimental about the attractive world he pictured. You could take it or leave it; it was all the same to him. His accuracy and laconic urbanity seemed sophisticated to the young art lover

That was probably our first lesson in artistic toughness and we remain grateful for it the way you remain beholden to some compelling old professor who never gave an inch unless you came up to the mark.

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There’s no getting around it. Degas holds a cherished place in memory as an object lesson in admirable crustiness.

Yet the truth is one would have to be about 70 to have been an adult presence the last time Degas’ art was surveyed in retrospective depth nearly a half-century ago. It is curious to face up to the fact that the Degas we thought we knew so well is an illusion stitched together--like so many things in life--of a patchwork of scattered memories.

Now, at last, we have the chance to see him virtually all at once in a traveling survey concluding its tour at the Metropolitan Museum where it launches the Met’s new Tisch galleries for special exhibitions. (If the place gets any bigger the Oriental wing will be in San Bernardino before you know it.)

Anyway, the Degas extravaganza, opening Oct. 11 and continuing to Jan. 8, includes nearly 300 works and comes with the hugest catalogue the Met has ever printed. Happily its 640-page bulk justifies itself with the kinds of curatorial insight and revelatory detail that crystallizes those half-formed realizations we all have sloshing around in the muck of the mind. Giving credit where it is due is impossible, so let the main curator’s name do for the lot: Jean Sutherland Boggs.

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Having ingested the epic book and some 10 galleries chock with paintings, pastels, monoprints, drawings and sculpture one is grateful for the encyclopedic experience but not for its effects. In the end Degas remains a great artist and the show a sure-fire hit but one that leaves a bitter and disturbing aftertaste.

The Family Fortune

Hilaire Germain Edgar De Gas was born July 10, 1834, in Paris, and died there Sept. 27, 1917, at age 83. In between, the family name was shortened to Degas. The artist’s father--Italian by origin--was a banker of considerable substance who indulged his son’s ambition. Degas worked unfettered by financial pressures until he was in his 40s. Father died leaving his estate mired in debt. The artist--to his credit--undertook to pay it off and spent the rest of his life complaining about money. He never married and one expert believes he was impotent from about the time the family fortune collapsed.

The most striking first impression of the exhibition is the smallness of most of the pictures. Size condenses their loose Impressionistic technique into a wound-up perfectionism that seems to be trying to contradict itself with casualness. The ease of the great “Racehorses Before the Stands” becomes an exercise in exquisite aesthetic calculation

Degas was sterotypically French in his clannishness. Virtually all of his portrait subjects were family members or friends among minor artists and the great Impressionists who were his contemporaries. That inbreeding might have made him an intimist like the later Bonnard but he resisted that too. One rare, large picture is the “Bellillei Family.” One of the greatest psychological group portraits of all time, the surgical accuracy of its characterization includes not a whiff of Degas’ own feeling save in some perverse moves such as posing one figure as if she were minus a leg.

Intimacy requires participation and Degas refused to play. No, that’s wrong--he held a hand he maddeningly refused to show. Such was the nature of his impersonality that he once painted a double portrait of Manet and his wife where the depiction of the woman so infuriated Degas’ friend and rival that he slashed her face out of the composition. Sizing that might bespeak modesty in another artist often becomes arch and provocative indifference in Degas.

Significantly, some of his most believable compositions represent another curious genre he seems to have invented--pictures of people at work doing things where the results are not apparent from the activity. He painted the orchestra at the opera tooting away mightily, but of course you can’t hear the music. He painted cotton traders in New Orleans, whose lounging poses tell nothing of their real work. Yet the pictures come off because they capture the emotional flatness of work itself.

More often than not, Degas depicted enwombed interiors or night scenes at theater or cafe-concert. He painted much in the shadows-- danse l’ombre .

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One early self-portrait in shadow shows a pug-nosed fellow with lidded eyes and a carnal mouth.

A Few Insights

The pseudo-science of physiognomy was popular in Degas’ day and he was interested in it. What could he have seen in his own face? A sensitive sensualist masked with ennui and aristocratic hauteur. A classic picture of a tender soul so overprotected as to appear mean-spirited and brusque.

Among the most penetrating insights of the catalogue essay is that Degas was preoccupied with the idea of equilibrium. His ballet girls and bathers are forever trying to keep their balance--and so was he.

Perhaps no artist since Raphael tried so hard to cleave to the middle path, the way of the classical, while avoiding its obvious pitfalls of predictability and moral pedantry. There is nothing wrong with that, but you have to have the temperament for it, a certain inner harmony Degas wanted but lacked so that his whole production is marked with moments of magnificent equipoise and pocked with neurotic equivocation and excessive caution. No aspect of his art has raised more questions than the way he combined indifference to women with an obsession for them.

His interest in physiognomy led him to introduce eloquent facial types into his art so the singer of “The Song of the Dog” looks like a pawing, overfed combination of pooch and bird. His famous sculpture of “The 14-Year-Old Dancer” has a face that is half monkey and half rat. If she looks brutish and depraved Degas would say he just put down the facts. The interpretation is ours. Even when he eventually admitted he had perhaps viewed women too much as animals he didn’t say how he did feel.

You keep seeing hints of the real Degas muffled in his own art. He set the stage for Expressionism in an early picture called “The Rape” and in late works where ballerinas take on giant proportions and nude Lolitas writhe in pain or ecstasy. Toulouse-Lautrec easily translated Degas into fuming and affectionate social satire; Munch mined him for cathartic confession that started the whole German Expressionist movement.

His Orchestrations

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Had Degas followed his own formalist leanings he might have become Cezanne. As it stands he remained the refined and understated haute bourgeoise , making major orchestrations of space and form in a minor key, fearfully contemptuous of the implications of his own great talent. Manet’s obvious ambition is far more bracing.

The total of all that effort is by no means chopped liver, dozens of masterpieces of pure figurative art that are at once utterly natural in appearance and purely aesthetic in form. The work continues a tradition of French art where the artist acts with the detachment of a behavioral scientist creating insights as startling as they are unforced.

Degas was a famous mimic and rapier wit, terrorizing and fascinating the crowd at the Cafe Guerbois with lethal insight. To Monet he said, “I remained only a second at your exhibition. Your pictures gave me vertigo.”

On seeing his first Cubist paintings he remarked, “This is more difficult than painting.”

Americans are incapable of that sort of bon mot but one would like to scribble a little note to the master reading, “Viewed your sparkling exhibition yesterday. Pausing before your laundresses, I realized your admirable rectitude permitted you only one expression of emotion in 300 works and it was a yawn.”


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