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Degas: A New Vision offered a rare, broad, and true career-spanning retrospective of Edgar Degas (1834–1917), whose body of work was produced over the course of half a century, in a trajectory that made many twists and turns. Degas was an artist deeply rooted in the traditions of the Renaissance and the Academy yet also one of the most avant-garde artists of his era. His innovations in monoprint, for example, both as a unique medium and in conjunction with pastel, show an experimental sensitivity to materials more commonly associated with modernists of the twentieth century. His interest in color theory becomes evident in the later dancer and bather imagery, whose color schemes betray the artist’s devoted interest in color theory and optics. Given its scope and scale, this exhibition afforded the viewer an opportunity to see the course of Degas’s career from his days as a young student idolizing the draughtsmanship of J. A. D. Ingres to his maturation as a grand innovator experimenting with monotype and photography.
Co-curators Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and Henri Loyrette, former director of the Musée du Louvre, billed the show as the most comprehensive Degas exhibition in the United States since 1988, when Loyrette launched the first true retrospective of Degas’s work with the collaboration of Tinterow, among other Degas scholars. The MFAH exhibition was thus a kind of follow-up or re-envisioning of the 1988 exhibition, which toured Paris, New York, and Ottawa. The artist’s oeuvre was newly framed in light of thirty years of additional research and intervening shows that have informed our knowledge of the artist and his place in the development of Impressionism and early modernism.
The MFAH show included over two hundred works, ranging from large-scale tableaux to small, intimate sketches, an overwhelmingly decadent feast for the eyes that allowed the curators to present a fairly encyclopedic history of Degas’s career. The exhibition began with a tight and informative full-wall timeline, nicely integrated with cultural framing in the form of text with photographs. The viewer then entered a large gallery of Degas’s early work, including sketches from his student days in Italy and Paris as well as academic paintings and portraits. For most viewers, with the exception of Young Spartans (1860), these works were new and surprising, known only to a small group of specialists.
For the average viewer, who perhaps expected to be immersed in the world of Degas the Impressionist or even the more recently introduced “Late Degas” (the dominant narrative of the last few exhibitions focused on his work), his juvenilia roots him in an Academic French tradition, a gentle opening to the better-known aspects of his career. The curators’ patient attention to the thread linking the opening two rooms brought forth Degas’s foundation in the academic tradition of Ingres as well as his considerable time spent in Italy during his youth, having traveled there annually between 1854 and 1860. He studied under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres, and met the master himself in 1855. These early works also set the stage for the narrative of Degas the ultimate draughtsman. The organization continued both chronologically and thematically, allowing the viewer to watch Degas grow and follow themes throughout his career.
Undoubtedly, the strength and success of the show rested in its sheer magnitude and diversity of works. From drawings to prints to tableaux, the range of works drawn from such a vast number and array of public and private lenders was staggering. The assembled collection enabled one to trace many different aspects of Degas’s career simultaneously as the show progressed, effectively following aspects of his thematic oeuvre throughout his career from its earliest moment until the very end, long after he stopped showing his art publicly. With Degas there is an insistent continuity in his work, a return time and again to a handful of themes that is unique among his peers in its focus and limitation and in many ways quite modern. He returned repeatedly to the themes of the dance, the horse and jockey, and the bather in many different mediums from sculpture to pastel to poetry. The exhibition’s comprehensive view enabled viewers to appreciate the “shocking modernity” of Degas’s practice and its appeal to contemporary sensibilities, particularly his 1890s forays into photography as well as his interest in media (“Degas Retrospective Opens October 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,” press release, July 25, 2016, 3). The catalogue is equally diverse in its image selection and provides a thorough overview of the artist’s career. Loyrette has written the majority of the text, providing nice insights into specific works and groups of works. The strength of Loyrette’s account is his familiarity with the archival literature; he weaves in personal letters masterfully, creating an entertaining and educational read.
A staggering number of shows on Degas have been mounted since 1988. For example, Degas: A Strange New Beauty, a fantastic show dedicated to his largely neglected prints, only recently closed at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Richard Kendall alone has mounted at least six major shows in the last quarter century including: Degas: Images of Women (1989); Degas Landscapes (1994); Degas: Beyond Impressionism (1996); Degas and the Little Dancer (1998); Picasso Looks at Degas (2010, with Elizabeth Cowling) (click here for review); and Degas and the Dance (2015, with Jill DeVonyar). Indeed, one could argue that Degas has been seen enough—the public is well familiar with his work.
So why is this show relevant now? As Tinterow rightly points out in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, each of these prior exhibitions was narrowly focused to address a specific aspect of Degas’s career. For example, though Beyond Impressionism offered a memorable presentation of Degas’s color and bold use of pastel, it did not frame the works in terms of his early career. Degas and the Little Dancer unveiled a new tutu for the iconic sculpture and provided a fascinating new perspective on all aspects of Degas and dance, in large part thanks to dance scholar Jill DeVonyar; it also offered previously unknown facts about Degas’s sculptural processes and relationship to the dance world. Each of these tightly focused shows stimulated new academic discourse and drew large crowds, but none has generated a broad, comprehensive understanding of the artist’s oeuvre in all its complexity. Indeed, the public is long overdue for the “new vision” poignantly presented in Houston a few weeks after the centenary of Degas’s death on September 27, 1917.
Some of the most novel inclusions absent from previous shows included the interspersion of sculptures with two-dimensional work. It is well known that Degas had no desire to cast his wax models into permanent bronze works, an undertaking done posthumously to save them from their inevitable disintegration. Some were repaired without the artist’s consultation. Though not Degas’s original wax creations, they nevertheless offer wonderful insight into his thought process. Created over decades, it was marvelous to see these works alongside their two-dimensional cognates, even if (with the exception of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer; ca. 1880) these pieces were never meant to be seen outside of his studio.
Other highlights were the display cases that included an assortment of monotypes, which revealed some interesting personal relationships—details not to be missed. Degas’s brothel monotypes, several of which were owned by Pablo Picasso, are Naturalist gems, offering intimate scenes of everyday life on the seedy side of Paris. Although his bathers were quite well known, these brothel monotypes were unseen and unmentioned during his lifetime (Raisa Rexer, “Stockings and Mirrors,” in Jody Hauptman, ed., Degas: A Strange New Beauty, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2016, 136). The most tender, perhaps, is The Name Day of the Madame (1877–79), a monotype with pastel added. Although the figures are nude, the image is not overly sexualized; the figures are in a mundane realm, much like the rest of his works from this period. Equally charming are his bather and ballet monotypes, which show him working in this intimate technique along with pastel and oil.
For a man often characterized as misanthropic, Degas in fact had deep relationships that lasted his entire lifetime. The curators managed to bring this out with their inclusion of a room full of portraits at the beginning of the exhibition and a room of personal photographs at its end. The painted portraits, which included some poignant “brooding artist” images as well as some images of friends and family, helped tie him to a longstanding Academic tradition. The most striking by far was his psychologically painful portrait of Edmondo and Therese Morbili (1865). On a lighter note, it was fun to see his early Naturalist likeness of his friend the French industrialist, collector, and painter Henri Rouart represented in front of his refrigeration factory (1875). The portrait shows signs of the artist’s interest in Émile Zola’s new Naturalist theories, but more importantly his deep friendships. The photographs of his friends also offered a wonderfully intimate touch to such an otherwise grand show. Like the early portraits, the late photographs demonstrated that Degas maintained close relationships and made new ones throughout his life. Viewers caught a glimpse of decades-long dear friend Daniel Halévy among Halévy’s family, a historian who would go on to write an early biography on Degas. We saw Auguste Renoir, a fellow Impressionist and also life-long friend. And we saw the leader of the Symbolist Movement, Stéphane Mallarmé, whom Degas consulted about his own poetry. We were given an intimate view into the artist’s culturally rich life, lived well into his sixties. With its rich array of works, Degas: A New Vision offered the viewer deep insight into the artist’s oeuvre through its sheer magnitude. It was definitely time for another retrospective, and it has been accomplished. One task now for scholars is to take the curators’ challenge and follow the thread of modernity in Degas’s work and its legacy into the twentieth century.
Art History Faculty, Department of Art and Art History, Center of Excellence, Visual and Performing Arts, Houston Community College