M. Degas arrive en ville

Edgar Degas: <i>Frieze of Dancers</i>, oil on canvas, circa 1895
Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, 1895. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art.

IN SIX weeks, the National Gallery of Victoria International opens its latest Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Degas, a New Vision. Works have been drawn from collections across the globe and, in the words of the NGVI’s press office, offer a ‘fresh and dynamic reappraisal of this legendary artist’s genius.’

It would seem that a reappraisal of Degas is toute la rage worldwide – currently, MoMA in New York is showing Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty that features 120 of Degas’ monoprints and drawings that tell the story of his masterful draftsmanship, his obsession with reworking composition and revisiting themes and his willingness to experiment with form, perspective, viewpoint and light.

Nevertheless, the Melbourne event sounds enticing. Question is, what might ‘a fresh and dynamic reappraisal’ encompass?  Difficult question, with the aforementioned objective in mind. Perhaps best to rule out the predicable first, and then see what’s left. So, if the NGVI’s exhibition wasn’t set to be fresh and dynamic, what might we see? The same old reinterpretation of what we already know. So, the exhibition can’t be about Degas the documenter of the bourgeoisie; Degas’ beloved and incessantly posterized ballet dancers, (worrying that the NGVI’s chosen hero-image that accompanies the press release is of a ballet dancer – but let’s remain hopeful) opera singers, horses and bathing women (and I forecast that the souvenir posters for this exhibition will sell out in the gallery shop in 48 hours if these are the feature of the exhibition)- we know that already. It can’t be that his drawing skill is exceptional; his charcoals and pencil works in their delicacy and precision match the abilities of any artist, from any time; he studied under Ingres (no drawing slouch himself) and continued to develop his skill throughout his life.

Degas study
Edgar Degas, Study of Giovanna Bellelli c.1858. Pencil (32 X 24 cm approx). The Louvre, Paris.

It can’t be that he was the least rebellious of the Impressionists – seen that dozens of times, or that his eyesight was appalling; well-known and documented through his letters and papers. Nor can it be that although he was considered part of, and regularly exhibited with the core Impressionists (he was there at the first 1874 exhibition, alongside Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and all the others in Nadar’s studio in the Boulevard des Capucines) he was the least impressionist in many ways and an incorrigible re-worker and re-toucher – he worked and reworked his paintings to, in some cases, death, even after they were ‘finished’. Famously, one work he sold to a friend, Henri Rouart, was ruined by Degas’ subsequent changes and revisions; the story is told that the replacement work that a somewhat guilty Degas provided by way of restitution was subsequently chained to the wall of Rouart’s dining room in order to prevent Degas from fiddling again and ruining it too. Can’t be his colour shyness – Degas’ palette doesn’t encompass the spectrum you’ll find in a Renoir and he seemed to prefer the indoors and artificial light of the boudoir, theatre and bar rather than the plein air of Pissarro or Monet.

But he did create landscapes.

Friends, Ludovic Halévy among them, were astonished to learn in 1892 that he was planning a landscape exhibition, something he’d never done one before. Halévy’s surprise was understandable: after all, he had always made fun of outdoor painters. ‘Painting is not sport’- a view he tossed at Henri’s son, Ernest Rouart, who wandered the outdoors armed with easel and paintbox, rather than shotgun and cartridge case, in search of subject matter.

In a conversation with Halévy, Degas explained that during a number of summer train trips, he’d stood in the door ‘and as the train went along I could see things vaguely. That gave me the idea of doing some landscapes.’ ‘Reflections of your soul?’ asked Halévy. ‘A reflection of my eyesight.’ Replied Degas. ‘We painters don’t use such pretentious langauge.’

Of course, the show was mounted on the walls of Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery (the famous ‘Fifth Impressionist’ and a key theme in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2015) the man responsible for promoting and championing the work of the Impressionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and no small contributor to the reputation their works enjoy now.

Edgar Degas, Coastal Landscape c.1892. Pastel on paper. Private collection, Geneva.

Maybe these are entry points for what we might see in June. Now that would be very interesting.

Published by John Rabling

I graduated from art school with majors in Painting and Art History. Since then I’ve created, curated, spoken and written about art and art practice of all kinds, worked for the National Trust of Australia, the Meat Market Craft Centre and exhibited my work in solo exhibitions, group and invitation shows. I am married and live with my family in Melbourne, Australia.

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