Good Art is … Degas in Winter

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.

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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.

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Portrait  of the artist Victoria Dubourg Edgar Degas c 1868-69 Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

 

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Woman in a tub c. 1883 Edgar Degas pastel Tate, London

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Dancers at a rehearsal 1895-98 Edgar Degas oil on canvas Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

The Winter Masterpiece exhibition of Degas – A New Vision

http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/degas/

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Good Art is … Degas in Winter

  1. Your thoughts about the exhibition are so true. It was interesting to be able to trace his artistic development, and then see the explosion of colour in his later years. And he was interested in such a wide variety of media, such as photography and printing, as well as trying out new methods with familiar media. (Would you be surprised to know that it was his drawings that resonated most with me?)

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    • Hi Anne – there were some quotes in there too which made me happy – the one in the post and the other about never finishing a work! That can be my defence too. Definitely the fact that he seemed to grow in energy (or perhaps it was agitation or urgency) with age – despite his worries about his sight – is an exciting prospect for all aspiring artists.

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  2. It’s too rare to have an experience of a painter’s wider body of work, and it should happen more often, considering the greater understanding we derive from it. The evolution of an artist’s vision often explains his better known pieces in a way not accessible without seeing the earlier work. I had the same sort of experience with the Picasso exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1998. Worth every moment of the two and a half hour queue to get in, even with a ticket!

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    • Hi Curt – it is a really wonderful opportunity to see the work of a single artist. There were a number of bronzes and, of course, one of the little ballerina sculptures. The link at the bottom of the post takes you to the online gallery of highlight pieces of the exhibition.

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