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First full Edgar Degas retrospective in nearly 30 years shows an artist who liked to be in control

First full Edgar Degas retrospective in nearly 30 years shows an artist who liked to be in control
In this detail from "Rehearsal hall at the Opera, rue Le Peletier" (1872), the ballet master instructs his dancer, much the way Degas controlled his art. (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

For today's art, does Edgar Degas matter?

That's the question at the heart of a large and fascinating retrospective exhibition newly opened at the Museum of Fine Arts here. The unsurprising answer being offered is yes — unsurprising because who would mount a complex show to assert irrelevance? Yet, the ways in which his art is shown to be relevant for contemporary culture are unexpected.

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Degas died 99 years ago at the age of 83. At the brink of his death's centennial, his work is never far from the art museum limelight, given the continuing popularity of French Impressionism. Shows in recent decades have focused on a variety of facets — themes such as working women and horse racing, his experiments with monotype printing, a brief but intense flirtation with photography, the dynamic physicality of ballet (of course), nude bathers, the place of pastels and sculpture within his large body of work and more.

Edgar Degas, "Self-Portrait," circa 1857-58, oil on paper
Edgar Degas, "Self-Portrait," circa 1857-58, oil on paper (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

So it is something of a surprise to realize that there has not been a full Degas retrospective in more than a generation. Degas was prolific, and a 1988 retrospective went a long way toward untangling his very knotty chronology.

Curator Henri Loyrette, then at Paris' Musee d'Orsay, was part of that show's organizing team. He has returned almost 30 years later to organize "Degas: A New Vision," which had its debut in June at Australia's National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. (His 1988 co-curator, Gary Tinterow, is today director of the Houston museum, which is the only American stop on the show's tour.) All of the new scholarly fire power accumulated over the last three decades has been brought to bear.

One result is the most text-heavy exhibition I've seen in recent memory. With few exceptions, each of about 200 works in the sprawling show is accompanied by an extended label. Far from the usual patronizing annoyance, these texts are unfailingly well-written and perceptive, a useful pleasure to read.

Loyrette knows his subject well. So well that the premise of his exhibition is quite simple: Degas immersed himself in the rigorous demands of an ambitious artist in mid-19th century Paris — then, when he was almost 40, began to turn those rules upside-down. The show is a demonstration, step by step, laid out in 10 large chronological galleries.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born a banker's son, one of five children, in 1834. He revered the Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom he met while copying Old Masters in the Louvre, and he studied drawing at the city's Academy of Fine Arts, which was vigorously asserting itself as the sole avenue to artistic success. (Loyrette convincingly describes Degas as primarily a draftsman rather than a painter.) He traveled to Rome, as countless French artists before him did, and spent three years there studying antiquities and copying Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.

Edgar Degas, "In a cafe (The Absinthe Drinker)," 1875-76, oil on canva
Edgar Degas, "In a cafe (The Absinthe Drinker)," 1875-76, oil on canva (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Degas came into an establishment art world that prized most highly the grand picture — the carefully conceived, rigorously executed, historically informed image that, following proven guidelines, would fully and with erudition encapsulate a definitive idea. And he chucked it all for an art that was provisional, topical, perpetually unfinished and ripe for revision — "open-ended," as Loyrette succinctly puts it in the exhibition's excellent catalog.

The preternatural precision of Degas' drawing style is worthy of Ingres, although it gets steadily more casual in the figures' poses and the touch of the artist's hand as he gains control. And for Degas, control is a big deal — although not in the academic way.

Most obvious is the nature of his interest in light. Almost alone among the Impressionists, who painted outdoors in shifting sunshine, Degas worked in his studio rendering candlelight, fireplaces and gas lamps. In the studio, the environment was controlled.

Control is the powerful subject of the riveting ballet picture, "Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier." Nothing but empty space fills the center, an optical void yawning between the lyrical primary dancer at the left-hand foreground and the ballet master and his observant cohorts in the diagonal middle ground at the right. The ballet master, hand raised and eyes fixed, confidently directs the ethereal young woman across the room.

Ballet is less a dance of continuous bodily motion than of static, extreme physical poses linked by fluid movement. The ballet master is a kind of proxy for Degas as artist, while the dancer is his art.

There is also a sexual undercurrent to the scene.

Parisian gentlemen, like wealthy men hanging around beauty pageants today, could acquire backstage access to ballet rehearsals. Degas put himself among them.

Edgar Degas, "Woman Drying Herself," circa 1905, charcoal and pastel on paper
Edgar Degas, "Woman Drying Herself," circa 1905, charcoal and pastel on paper (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The backstage power dynamic turns up again 20 years later. The 1890s saw extraordinary paintings and pastels of nude women in contorted positions as they enter a bathtub or comb their hair — women often presumed to be sex workers in brothels. An element of voyeurism courses through the work. Perhaps it descended from the common Old Master subject of Susanna at her bath, secretly being ogled by old men.

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But these nudes are hardly classical figures, just as the awkward, rough-hewn waif who posed for the famous mixed-media sculpture of "The little fourteen-year-old dancer" is not one of mythological history's idealized "Three Graces," fixed for all eternity. Such works are emblematic of Loyrette's contention that Degas is modern partly because his images are fragmentary, never fully resolved. Another angle is always available to explore.

''There must always be some mystery left,'' Degas liked to say. Artistic process, in other words, is celebrated.

Degas made the process a subject in that gorgeous 1872 ballet rehearsal, and he pushed it to an unprecedented extreme in the late bathers. The lifelong bachelor's manipulations of women certainly give one pause today, as surely as his notorious anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair, when he supported the state in its heinous persecution of a Jewish artillery captain in the French army. (Degas' views cost him his friendship with Camille Pissarro.) It was a different time.

In art today, open-ended process is taken for granted the same way highly finished erudition was in the 19th century French academy. What could be more contemporary than art whose meaning evolves from the process of its making? Degas is a progenitor.

Edgar Degas, "The little fourteen-year-old dancer," 1879-81, cast 1922-37; bronze with cotton skirt and satin ribbo
Edgar Degas, "The little fourteen-year-old dancer," 1879-81, cast 1922-37; bronze with cotton skirt and satin ribbo (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The Houston show, on view through Jan. 16, includes many breathtaking works — "In a café (The Absinthe Drinker)," in which a boozy, stoned woman floats as surely as the legless table tops on which her cocktails sit; "Hortense Valpinçon," the fidgety little girl in an apron painted on salvaged mattress ticking but posed as if she were the sleek Princesse de Broglie in Ingres' grandiose portrait of a dignitary swathed in satin; the portrait of an anonymous "Roman Beggar Woman" whose tamped-down color, which Degas described in his notebook as "faded," subtly conveys her aged penury with more power than the symbolic broken crockery and torn crust of bread beside her; and many others.

A few important things are unfortunately missing, such as "Young Spartans Exercising," a classically themed study of youthful sexual bantering that the artist painted at 26 and kept in his studio for the next six decades (three studies for the painting are here); or "The Bellelli Family," a large picture of a family in mourning whose domestic intimacy attains the gravity of a history painting by Velázquez or Anthony van Dyck.

But these are small omissions. The 1988 Degas retrospective showed his then poorly understood work to be indispensable. This one raises his standing further still.

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