DegasJuly 28, 2016
Degas had a dread of publicity and an intense dislike of journalists. “Those people trap you in your bed,” he grumbled, “strip off your shirt, corner you in the street, and when you complain, they say: ‘You belong to the public.’”
Almost a hundred years after his death, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) has become public property in a way he would have dreaded. The name “Degas” is now a brand that guarantees an audience, but the artist’s popularity means we rarely get to see him in his entirety.
As summarised by Henri Loyrette, curator of Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria, over the past 25 years we have seen shows “revisiting the various periods of Degas’s life, developing thematic analyses (portraits, dance and movement, nudes, the racecourse paintings, landscapes), focusing on a technical approach (sculpture, photography, the process of creation, the printmaking oeuvre), documenting parallels with other artists (Pissarro, Picasso), or situating the artist in his time, among his colleagues and friends, and reassembling his private collection.”
Loyrette, who retired as director of the Louvre in 2013, was also involved in the last truly comprehensive Degas retrospective of 1988, shown in Ottawa, Paris and New York. One of his collaborators was Gary Tinterow, former senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the current show will travel after Melbourne.
It is the involvement of these two experts that makes Degas: A New Vision a ‘blockbuster’ unlike any we have seen in Australia. We have fallen into the lazy habit of using this term to describe any touring exhibition, no matter how slight, but there is a huge difference between this show, which has been on the drawing board since 1999 (when the first letters were exchanged), and a package drawn from a single source.
One of the reasons the show took so long was that in 1999 Loyrette had only just taken up the reins at the Louvre, and was committed to his duties. On the other hand, he continued to do intensive research on Degas for the entire decade.
In Australia the usual blockbuster recipe has been for a handful of major works to be supplemented by a mass of secondary ones. Even a successful exhibition such as The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, shown at the Art Gallery of NSW last summer, was still a much easier proposition than a show assembled from 67 public and private collections in twelve countries.
One problem is that Australia is perceived as being too far off the beaten track to justify major loans. Neither do we have a large stock of masterworks that can be swapped between venues, as happens with museums in New York, London and Paris. This means that Australian curators, short of contacts and bargaining power, have been prepared to take what they’re given rather than argue for specific pieces.
Many overseas curators seem to believe Australian audiences wouldn’t know the difference between a first-rate and second-rate show, but this is a risky assumption.
For the touring agency, Art Exhibitions Australia, the past two decades have been devoted to overcoming such perceptions. AEA has brought influential curators and museum directors to Australia for a first-hand look, and worked with well-connected consultants. It has gradually built up a network of contacts no local gallery can match.
The difference is palpable when we compare the current show to Degas: The Undisputed Master, held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2008. Many believe that exhibition was conceived as a spoiler for the slow-building AEA project. The NGA gathered a number of important works, including some that are also being shown in Melbourne, but the outcome was patchy. There was, for instance, a dearth of pastels – works that constitute the major part of Degas’s output from the 1870s onwards.
Searching for a big bang ending the NGA displayed Degas’s famous sculpture, The little fourteen-year-old dancer (1887-81) on a platform in the final room, as if it were the culmination of the artist’s career. It may have been the only sculpture Degas ever exhibited, but he would work for another 36 years.
With more than 200 items the NGV show has at least 80 more than its Canberra predecessor, including key pieces in every medium and style. Thare is an extended series of family portraits, early history paintings, a set of highly original landscapes made at the beginning of the 1890s, and the late works from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, which have never previously been loaned.
Most importantly, Degas: A New Vision is not conceived as a patchwork thematic exhibition, it follows the artist’s career chronologically, charting his development with carefully-chosen clusters of works. Loyrette has conceived the show as a reassessment of the 1988 retrospective in light of new material turned up by art historians.
The curator summarises the new findings in a long, magisterial catalogue essay which takes us through Degas’s artistic biography from beginning to end. The aim, he says, is to emphasise “the organic development of Degas’s work”; the way his restless experimentation may be viewed as “a single melodic line”.
The display reveals the relationships between Degas’s forays into painting, drawing, pastels, sculpture, printmaking and photography. We see how the artist’s shifts of direction coincide with events in his life and the social and political upheavals of his times. Degas’s youthful history paintings produced under the influence of Ingres, feed directly into the scenes of modern life for which he is celebrated. His images of the racecourse and the ballet are shown to be remarkably similar in approach: “waiting, warming-up, stepping onto the public stage, the race and the spectacle, fatigue and repose.”
What we have, for once, is an exhibition of the same quality that might be found in Paris or New York. In museum circles it is a talking point as to why this show wasn’t held in Paris or London. The National Gallery in London was rumoured to have been invited to take the exhibition, but took too long to decide, and was beaten by Houston. It may be worth noting that the National Gallery did not eventually agree to lend its most important works by Degas to the exhibition.
For Australia’s art museums Degas: A New Vision is an important step in establishing our international credentials as an initiator of original exhibitions, not merely as a showcase for whatever happens to be on offer.
This may, however, be a hard act to repeat as the fragility of artworks means an increasing number are no longer allowed to travel. Then there is the difficulty of securing long-term loans, which ensures the NGV show will have a relatively short duration, closing on 18 September. Finally there are issues over insurance and indemnity, as the federal government has replaced a model scheme with a slightly less expensive alternative, without consideration of potential pitfalls.
With all these obstacles it’s even more miraculous that the NGV show may bring us closer to understanding Degas than any previous exhibition. There are, however, limits on how much we are able to discover. Degas was happy to play the curmudgeon and jealously protected his privacy. Yet his misanthropic reputation was offset by the intimate memoirs of figures such as family friend, Daniel Halévy; artist, Walter Sickert, and art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, who left vivid accounts of the artist’s personality and conversation.
Degas remained a bachelor and was never romantically linked to any woman. Some have speculated that he had an attachment with American artist, Mary Cassatt, but that seems unlikely. We don’t even know what he did in the Parisian bordellos he portrayed so memorably. Was he a client or merely an observer?
We know that for all his reclusiveness, Degas felt a fierce loyalty to family and friends. He also suffered acutely from loneliness, and would attach himself to surrogate families such as the Valpinçons or the Halévys. He would dine with the latter several times a week until they fell out over the Dreyfus affair of 1894. The Halévys, whose ancestors were Jewish, took the side of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who had been convicted of treason. Degas, a staunch admirer of the French army, would not accept the idea that Dreyfus was a victim of an anti-Semitic conspiracy. The violence of the long-running affair would divide all of France, long after Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906.
Degas was disparaging about the plein air landscapes painted by his colleagues in the Impressionist camp, but surprised everyone when he produced a suite of his own “vague” landscapes. He was said to dislike children but he was charming to the sons and daughters of friends. One can safely assume he would have loathed the NGV’s children’s labels, which refer to him as a story-book character named “Edgar”. Excessive familiarity was another pet hate.
One of the abiding myths of Degas was his misogyny but this idea seems to spring more from reactions to his work than from anything he did or said. The novelist, Joris-Karl Huysmans started the process, with an enthusiastic review of Degas’s pictures of women bathing that discerned a “special accent of scorn and hate”. The chorus would continue year after year, as viewers discussed the “ugliness” of Degas’s women. The statue of the Little dancer was seen as bestial, vicious and depraved.
All of this reflected the misogynist attitudes of the day. Degas contended that he was a realist who showed bodies as they really were, not as Greek statues. It’s fascinating to learn the extent to which his history paintings may be interpreted as allegories for Baron Haussmann’s makeover of Paris, the depredations of the American Civil War, or even his own efforts to impress his father.
Degas spent many hours copying in the Louvre, attempting to perfect his skills, but from his earliest days he had a distaste for stale convention. This is obvious in one of the masterworks of the show, The Bellelli family (1867). This portrait of his aunt Laure, uncle Gennaro and his nieces, Giovanna and Giulia, took six years to complete and remains his largest painting. The style is as precise as Ingres but the psychological underpinnings are utterly modern. It’s a study of an unhappy marriage, expressed through frozen faces and tense body language.
Another undeniable highlight is Interior (1868-69), sometimes called The rape. Degas called it “my genre picture”, and gave nothing away to his critics. It is a scene with a powerful sexual tension in which a fully clothed man gazes silently at a partially undressed woman who seems to be crying. The setting is a bedroom, lit by a single lamp. An open jewel box on the table has been read as a symbol of violation.
There is, however, an alternative view that sees the image as an illustration from Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin, in which there is a diabolical conspiracy between the lovers. Either way it’s one of the most powerful and ambiguous pictures of the era – a manifestation of that “mystery” Degas saw as a necessary component of any successful work of art.
As this show presents a faithful record of Degas’s career, there is no triumphant ending. Instead we see the extent to which he struggled to overcome the eye trouble that plagued him from the 1870s onwards. While never totally sightless, the artist’s vision became so badly impaired he was unable to paint in oils. By way of compensation he threw himself into photography and began writing poetry.
We watch Degas’s work getting progressively rougher, more expressionistic and abstract. He talked jokingly about his “orgies of colour”, but this is precisely how many viewers saw his late pastels – as if they were an affront to decency. Finally he was reduced to making sculptures in wax, feeling out the forms with his hands.
This creates a sense of diminuendo as we move into the final room of the exhibition, conscious of the elderly artist groping the dark, proceeding through a mixture of memory and tactility. One leaves with the feeling that, despite the efforts of the historians, Degas has preserved his closely-guarded mystery to the end.
Degas: A New Vision
National Gallery of Victoria, until 18 September
John McDonald flew to Melbourne courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 30th July, 2016