Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 14, 2018
Jane Munro, ed. Degas: A Passion for Perfection Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 269 pp.; 250 color ills. Hardcover $50.00 (9780300228236)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK, October 3, 2017–January 14, 2018; Denver Art Museum, February 18–May 20, 2018
Leïla Jarbouai and Marine Kisiel, eds. Degas Danse Dessin: Hommage à Degas avec Paul Valéry Exh. cat. Paris, France: Gallimard, 2017. 255 pp. Cloth (9782072751974)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, November 28, 2017–February 25, 2018
Installation view, Degas Danse Dessin: Hommage à Degas avec Paul Valéry, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, November 28, 2017–February, 25, 2018 (photograph © Sophie Crepy Boegly; provided by Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

In 2017, the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, United Kingdom) and the Musée d’Orsay (Paris) marked the centenary of Edgar Degas’s death with exhibitions that explored different aspects of the painter’s legacy. Each exhibition drew attention to myths that developed about Degas and his art in the years after his death, highlighting approaches that dealers and collectors took to the marketing and acquisition of his works.

The subtitle of the Fitzwilliam exhibition—“a passion for perfection”—is taken from a comment that the celebrated dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard made in the 1924 book he published about Degas. As noted by the curator, Jane Munro, Vollard’s remark was intended to defend the artist against the charge of having pursued a diminished range of themes in his later years. Reinforcing Paul Valéry’s characterization of Degas’s creativity in Degas Danse Dessin (1936) as a “knowing art,” Vollard conceived of this quest for perfection as part of Degas’s “commitment to on-going pictorial ‘research’” (14).

In her catalogue contributions, Munro tests this notion of “perfection” as it applies to Degas’s art. Pointing to the artist’s experimentation with materials and techniques, his reluctance to view works as “finished,” and his persistent “cultivation of the contingent” (13), Munro debates tensions between the drive to complete an artwork and, as Valéry put it, Degas’s “goût du bricolage” (taste for “cobbling things together”) (12). The exhibition examined these competing tendencies as they developed over the course of Degas’s career. A succession of rooms took visitors on a trajectory that began with Degas’s early studies of artistic precedents, showcased his predilection for repeating motifs, and culminated in radical experiments with printmaking and drawing. The thematic grouping of works and the juxtaposition of wax and bronze sculptures gave a vivid sense of the artist’s relentless experimentation with materials and their potential to yield different visual effects.

While the background material in the catalogue will be familiar to specialists, the book’s essays offer particular insight into Degas’s relationship to England. Munro discusses the development of the collection of Degas’s works in the Fitzwilliam Museum and at King’s College, Cambridge. Included in the exhibition were works drawn from gifts and bequests by early twentieth-century collectors, most notably by the economist and bursar of King’s College, John Maynard Keynes. Munro contextualizes Keynes’s acquisition of works at the posthumous sales of Degas’s studio contents in Paris. From his temporary post as an advisor to the UK Treasury, Keynes helped to secure a grant for purchases by the National Gallery, describing this as his “picture coup” for the nation (16).

Installation view, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK, October 3, 2017–January 14, 2018 (photograph © 2018; provided by the Fitzwilliam Museum)

Richard Kendall’s essay develops this theme by considering Degas’s relationship to England during the artist’s lifetime. In comparison to the impact of other European countries on Degas’s imagination, the significance of English landscape and cultural history appears negligible. Yet Kendall illuminates lesser-known cross-Channel connections to the artist’s work around the themes of horse racing and beach scenes. He also traces Degas’s interest in works by English artists including Arthur Stevens, James Clarke Hook, James Tissot, James McNeill Whistler, and Walter Sickert and examines opportunities offered by the London art market. Kendall notes the important role that Paul Durand-Ruel played in developing Degas’s transnational reputation and discusses significant but hitherto unexplored English resonances in the early Impressionist exhibitions (37).

The catalogue contains illuminating essays on the major themes of Degas’s output and the media in which he worked: monotypes (Timothy J. Standring); depictions of the nude, landscape, and urban life (Munro); an engagement with ballet and dancers (Jill DeVonyar); sculpture, including a close discussion of the Fitzwilliam’s holdings of Degas’s works (Victoria Avery); and a technical study of the artist’s wax models (Jo Dillon). The exhibition concluded with a consideration of Degas’s impact on British artists. This was particularly welcome as it added significantly to the ways in which Degas’s legacy may be conceived beyond critical writing.

Anna Gruetzner Robins’s essay on this topic focuses primarily on twentieth-century drawings, paintings, and sculptures that recall thematic or technical preoccupations in Degas’s works. This includes consideration of paintings by Sickert and Francis Bacon, drawings by Henry Moore, Howard Hodgkin’s After Degas, and depictions of the female body by David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, R. B. Kitaj, Lucien Freud, and Ryan Gander. Gruetzner Robins notes that she has “avoided the current feminist debate about Degas” (222) in her selection and discussion of examples. This is a pity, as it would have offered an opportunity to bring artworks by women into the remit of the exhibition. Artists including Paula Rego, Cecily Brown, and Jenny Saville have engaged closely with Degas’s art, and it would have been interesting to see how consideration of these and works by other female artists could have challenged familiar ideas about Degas’s creativity and its relationship to the theme of gender.

If Vollard’s critical writing offered the subtitle to the Fitzwilliam exhibition, his influential presence as a publisher loomed larger in the Homage to Degas mounted by the Musée d’Orsay and cocurated by Leïla Jarbouai and Marine Kisiel. The exhibition was built around Paul Valéry’s famous book Degas Danse Dessin that Vollard published as a limited edition in 1936. In keeping with the high production value of the original, the exhibition catalogue is a pleasure to handle and to read. It contains facsimiles of Valéry’s manuscripts and drawings, extracts from Vollard’s notebooks, pages from the maquette of Degas Danse Dessin, and numerous photographs of Degas and reproductions of his works. The exhibition was also accompanied by the publication of a facsimile of Degas Danse Dessin (copublished by Gallimard and the Musée d’Orsay) made after the copy of the original that the museum had acquired for the exhibition. This republication is particularly important as it makes more widely available the original version of Valéry’s text without the typographical slippages that have found their way into small-scale paperback editions of the work.

The exhibition successfully met the challenges of bringing Valéry’s text to life and locating Degas’s works at the nexus of French literary and artistic traditions. The curators did an excellent job of highlighting the materiality of book production and introducing audiences to Valéry’s own creative thinking as he wrote his study. Both exhibition and catalogue show how Valéry conceived of his own writing—analytically, imaginatively, and physically—in relation to this task. This is made vivid by reproducing samples of the writer’s marginal notes and doodles as they took shape around the theme of Degas’s work. A catalogue essay by Michel Jarrety offers important background on the relationship between painter and writer and examines Valéry’s conception of Degas’s “pictorial poetic” (27). Lucile Pierret completes the discussion by bringing Vollard’s own ambitions into focus, noting the publisher’s use of Degas’s prints to create luxury editions of Guy de Maupassant’s La Maison Tellier (1935) and Pierre Louÿs’s Mimes des courtisanes de Lucien (1936).

The exhibition took seriously the title of Valéry’s book by considering the imbrication of drawing and dance. Catalogue essays by Marine Kisiel and Masanori Tsukamoto examine the significance of drawing in Valéry’s portrayal of the painter. The close link between drawing and writing— illustrated by Valéry’s own sketches of the hand holding a pen—suggest a vital proximity between the creativity of writer and painter. As the authors show, Degas’s commitment to draftsmanship was, for Valéry, a symbol of the artist’s intelligence, an ethical outlook, and a form of graphic reasoning. It was, moreover, a style of expression that linked the literary and the visual and functioned as a means by which painting and literature could share the creative framework of the page.

Other essays situate Degas in the artistic milieu that influenced the creation of Valéry’s book. Stéphane Guégan examines the pivotal role that the Rouart family played in fostering the relationship between Valéry and Degas; Jarrety brings to the fore the creative practice of another individual who was an important bridge between the two men: Stéphane Mallarmé. The network between these individuals is examined through an array of shared metaphors and responses to late nineteenth-century visual culture, including emergent technologies of photography and cinema. Essays chart singular connections between drawing and dance through Valéry’s metaphor of the translucent jellyfish propelling itself through water in rhythms that mimic the opening and closing of a dancer’s tutu or the balance and poise of the thoroughbred horse that, like a dancer, walks “en pointe.” The catalogue helpfully reproduces the illustrations contained in Degas Danse Dessin, thereby showing how Valéry communicated ideas about Degas’s life and work visually as well as textually.

Taken together these two exhibitions and their catalogues offer vivid and complementary images of Degas’s œuvre, its legacy, and its placement in a network of artistic relationships. By focusing on ways in which Degas’s life and work have been posthumously marketed and mythologized both in France and abroad, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Musée d’Orsay capture the persistent appeal of Degas’s pictorial innovations to the creative and critical imaginations.

Kathryn Brown
Lecturer, School of Arts, English and Drama, Loughborough University