There can’t be any better way to get warm on a wintry Melbourne day than to wrap yourself in 200 works by Edgar Degas.
Before I had even mentally prepared I had plunged into the great catalogue of work.
But while I left having learned much about the artist, I still want to know so much more.
Compared to a gallery space with a single great work given pride of place alongside his fellow artists, here Degas is stretched out in a forensic time line which anyone fortunate enough to live a long and productive life might come to know.
Here we recognise the promise of youth, the earnest study and imitation of others, the labour of work and self-doubt, the struggle with relationships and social mores, despair of war and injustice, the emergence of self-expression, the loss of family members and friends, the anxiety of impending infirmity and loneliness and finally (perhaps) acceptance and death.
To chart the life of any person by their work is extraordinary enough but the exhibition lays so much bare that the need to understand Degas grows with each sketch and painting.
Degas feels so familiar to we masses – his ballerina graced my bedroom wall through my childhood and many a box of pastels were expended emanating him. So we might naturally arrive expecting ‘a Degas’ to give us the affirmation we seek of what art should be.
But there are enigmatic signs and radical ideas revealed throughout these collected works which unsettle our preconceptions. The notable shift in subject matter from the classical to the respectable and urbane to what (was) seen as destitute and degenerate is one clear journey through the exhibition.
What we might regard as expected transitions in an artist’s maturation are shown here with other silent signposts which would readily account for shifts in direction and purpose. The death of his mother, the expectations of a middle-class family who despaired of Degas’ inability to complete works despite their investment in his education, being witness to the horrific Siege of Paris, surviving the battle at Bois de Vicennes, his impending blindness.
Where other men long gone might have their unpalatable views forgotten, the labels applied to Degas – misogynistic, anti-semitic, argumentative – continue to ripple and raise debate, even to the extent of tainting his work.
So if you think of Degas as a gifted artist of decorative pieces – before you plunge in as I did, expecting to leave satiated or even entertained – then this exhibition may not give that to you.
In all likelihood you will want to take stock and retrace your steps through the life of an extraordinary artist whose work we can seek to know better but whose life, as a man, continues to elude us.
The Winter Masterpiece exhibition of Degas – A New Vision