Degas: Beyond Impressionism

at the Art Institute, through

January 5

By Fred Camper

The Art Institute is touting its big, special-admission Degas show as an exhibit that comes “from a period of his career once shrouded in mystery.” Once, perhaps, but the huge 1988 Degas retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York placed this same period in the context of his whole career. The story that show told was of a painter who after age 50 transformed himself into a kind of proto-abstractionist: Degas’ late pastels have an extraordinary inner light, an intensity of color and form that makes them fully the equal of the fauvist and abstract work of later painters.

But the over 90 pieces in “Degas: Beyond Impressionism,” works from the 1880s until about 1905, provided me with another revelation, one I didn’t get from the show at the Met. The Art Institute presents Degas’ sculptures and drawings as coequals with his better-known pastels and (relatively few) late oils, giving us an artist whose “orgies of color”–his own phrase for some of his last works–are always supported by an underlying structure of lines and shapes evoking the human figure. For the figure was his subject in all but half a dozen of the works in this show.

Degas painted women. When one of his first collectors, Louisine Havemeyer, asked him why he always took ballet dancers as subjects, Degas answered, “It is all that is left of the combined movement of the Greeks.” And although he himself did more than his share of nudes, he once called a nude by his contemporary Gerome “pornographic.” Paul Valery, one of Degas’ close friends, tells us that for Degas drawing was “a supreme preoccupation which abolished all other matters, a source of endless problems in precision which released him from any other form of inquiry.” These and similar statements, quoted in Richard Kendall’s excellent catalog text, might make us think that this bachelor and self-declared celibate had no special reason for painting women. But the exhibit I saw told me something you won’t learn from Art Institute publicity or the exhibition booklet: almost every picture in this show is profoundly erotic.

In an era of mad-dog politicians and sundry yahoos, art museums and art historians are perhaps justifiably reluctant to acknowledge eroticism in the art they show. It’s a reluctance that’s hardly new: critics and advocates have long sought to distinguish fine art from pornography by suggesting the former has more elevated aims. And it would be wrong to describe Degas’ work as only erotic: much of its richness comes from its fusion of eroticism with other themes. That I almost wrote “other, larger” themes shows how I too have been brainwashed by centuries of “Western civilization”–is there any real reason why the sexual impulse can’t be as large or high as any other?

“Erotic” doesn’t necessarily mean “arousing,” and it’s certainly not the same as pornographic. The spectacular oil Nude Woman Drying Herself, thought to be the understructure of a picture to which Degas intended to add color, is almost monochromatic. Yet here the artist captures his usual tension between color and line in the opposition between lines and great swatches of gray brown with a smeared-on, almost chaotic quality, adding a sensual dimension to the forms.

Rather than display a body as illusionistically as possible, the way a pornographer does, Degas represents the circumstances of erotic looking, so that one doesn’t have to be attracted to his figures–or to women at all–to appreciate this dimension of his work. Nude Woman Drying Herself reveals an understanding of the way the concealed can be more erotic than what is shown. The woman’s body is mostly turned away from us as she faces an open doorway, the apparent source of the light streaming into the room; while most of her body is in shadow, her left leg and breast and left eyelid catch a bit of light from the door. The eye is led via these glimmers from the moderately sensual back to the unseen front: the mind’s eye, led from darkness to light, imagines the whole nude form.

Around the time this painting was made, 1884-’86, Degas remarked that in other, earlier artists’ work the poses of nude subjects “presuppose an audience.” And many of his own earlier works portrayed women being looked at, sometimes from an unusual angle. In the 1883 Ballet Dancers on the Stage the dancers seem to look down at an audience from the privileged position of the stage, while we see them from an even more privileged position–from just above, a place they’d expect no one to be. Seen from this perspective the dancers seem to blend together, as a yellow skirt becomes a blue one and crossed arms become a little thicket of limbs. And in Degas’ bathing scenes the bather has no reason to believe anyone would be viewing her.

In his catalog essay, Kendall seems uncomfortable with the idea that Degas’ pictures might be voyeuristic: he connects the disappearance of a portrayed audience with Degas’ move toward near abstraction. But the fact that we often view the later subjects from behind seems a major part of the works’ character: we’re allowed to watch private moments unseen. Kendall points out that Degas’ models’ eyes never meet ours, as they would in conventional pornography; but a true voyeur never hopes for the possession implied by a truly pornographic view, never wants to be acknowledged, finding meaning instead in his own invisibility. The voyeur waits for a key moment, a key vantage point, a key pose that will trigger desire. Degas, of course, didn’t have to wait: he paid models to pose as he wished.

Which is not to say Degas had it easy. A relentless worker, he made his pastels on tracing paper partly so he could make additional versions of the same pose, changing each one a little bit from the last. He wasn’t so much trying to “get it right” as he was engaged in a struggle that, like Cezanne’s, had no conclusion by its very nature. For another aspect of Degas’ work that separates it from pornography is its apparent incompleteness. His compositions never announce their own perfection. Almost all his work has a tentative quality, as if an instant in time had been found that–like the moment the voyeur waits for–must be preserved because it doesn’t last. Degas’ lines suggest solidity, but he often uses multiple parallel lines to represent the same contour; his explosive colors clash with his dynamic lines; his splotchy surfaces border on chaos. The tensions between these formal elements, which hold his pictures together while preventing them from ever coming to rest, is mirrored in the poses he selected. Rarely frontal, never passive, his models always sit or stand in positions that seem to require considerable muscle power; one feels that their bodies, like the overall compositions, are under stress.

This is surely true of the three nude figures in the charcoal drawing Group of Dancers (one of several works with this title, identified as number 26 in the catalog and exhibit). The standing dancer on the left leans forward, resting her hand and some of her weight against a wall. The seated middle dancer has one leg propped up on a bench, and the seated dancer on the right bends over to touch her ankle. All of them seem caught in the middle of actions.

Degas apparently traced this drawing for the substratum of the pastel Dancers (catalog number 25). Here the figures are dressed in tutus whose textured green flecked with tan and white–a color pattern continued on the wall–adds a level of almost disorganized sensuality. The underlying patterns of the dancers’ limbs still create tension, but the addition of costumes displaces the eroticism of the drawing–the lines of which seem to be leading to the women’s crotches–to the texture of the pastels and the paper. The continuation of the costumes’ color patterns onto the wall and floor also disperses attention from the figures to the whole image.

Two sculptures, one drawing, and three pastels (catalog numbers 74-79) mounted on or beside one wall reveal Degas’ different approaches to a figure in the same pose. Hands on her hips, chest thrust forward, legs bent, she seems matter-of-factly assertive, in contrast to Gerome’s nude woman hiding her eyes in the painting Degas found pornographic. In Degas’ drawing Three Nude Dancers, the left figure is outlined several times; the fainter lines, as often in his drawings, suggest earlier or later stages of movement. The bronze sculpture alongside, Dancer at Rest, Hands Behind Her Back, Right Leg Forward, reveals how dynamic the drawn figure is, thrusting forward with almost as much force as the three-dimensional form. In the pastel Two Dancers (catalog number 77) the figure is covered by a tutu in an almost ethereal mix of orange, pale purple, and white; the eye-tickling vividness of the colors adds another dynamic. And in the bronze Dressed Dancer at Rest, Hands Behind Her Back, Right Leg Forward, he gives the figure a tutu whose rough surface seems an attempt to capture the texture of the pastel tutus; clearly Degas sees color as tactile, and his wild colors make his pictures at once dreamlike and palpable.

Seven images of women combing their hair hung together make the relationship between color and design in Degas’ work clearer. An admirer of both the Venetian colorist Titian and classicists such as Poussin and a lover of contemporary music, Degas creates a rhythmic composition of curves in the oil Combing the Hair (catalog number 42), but it’s almost overwhelmed by the blood-thick, riotous reds that suffuse nearly every form. The rhythmic arrangement of arms, hair, and comb can also lead the eye down toward the woman’s crotch. But of course there’s nothing to see there except more reds–another instance of Degas redirecting the erotic gaze to his colors.

Together the dynamic poses of Degas’ figures, the fact that his subjects are often caught in the midst of an action or in a state (nudity) that will soon end, and the dynamic tensions in his compositions create complex works full of unpredictable movement and color. The multiple lines in the drawings and the multiple color splotches of the pastels suggest Degas’ openness not only to the complexities of the human figure but to the unruly nature of erotic desire. These lines also give the works a temporary, provisional feel, as if these were glimpses of moments that will not come again. The eight pastels of Russian dancers with which the show ends, however, represent a glorious exception to this rule.

There aren’t many pictures in the Art Institute’s permanent collection as fine as Russian Dancers (catalog number 90). The two largest figures are in nearly identical poses–right hand to the head, left at the waist, left leg lifted–but face in different directions and so seem to mirror each other. This mix of symmetries combined with the folds in the dancers’ skirts and blouses creates a swirling effect rather than directing one’s attention toward one or two areas. The dancers are outdoors, in a field, rather than in the stripped-down interiors of most of Degas’ late work: they’re clothed and expect to be seen. The fuzzy tapestry of the trees above their heads is reflected in the wreaths in their hair and flowers on their blouses; they’re not only in nature but seem forces of nature. Their balanced forms suggest the opposite of an instant: an eternal dance. There’s no hair drying that will be finished, no clothing to be put on. Their bodies don’t appear to be under much muscular stress; instead they seem part of a swirling round that will repeat forever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Combing the Hair/Dancer at Rest. Hands Behind Her back, right leg forward.