Today art is encountering all aspects of society and has become a desirable component of the Australian lifestyle, whether visual or performance. One painter in modern history, French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) based in Paris, successfully presented his combined impressions of both.
Paris for many is the most beautiful city in the world. Its visual richness assaults the senses as layer upon layer of magnificent buildings arrest the eye. Its style, which is as essential to it’s architecture as a garnish is to its food, is certainly more than seductive.
From the Faubourgs to city Boulevards lined with boutiques, from Mansard roofs punctuated with windows to glorious gardens and from triumphal arches to the stark modernism of the glass pyramid at the Louvre, where daily visitors line up for hours to view its greatest art treasures, the conscious decision for centuries to restrict the core of the city to being six stories high means that everything is accessible and delights the eye.
Among the most popular art works in Paris’s famous art museums are those rendered during the latter half of the nineteenth century when most painters were spectacularly poor. This was when new group emerged, providing an all-new optimistic view of life as it really was, and not by following as they saw it, an archaic set of out of date bureaucratic rules.
They pulled away from the French Academy, whose focus was on the ancient past, to produce a new style of painting set in the reality of a present full of people within natural settings.
Many people found it difficult to cope with the so-called Impressionists. Their wholly new vision for art was all about capturing a moment living life indoors and out.
Their subjects were either dark or light, en grisaille or in full glorious rich sensuous colour and those who subscribed to their philosophy recorded society at work and most especially at play, including the opera, the ballet or at the horse races in the country.
Edgar Degas while embracing their concepts, also set about ensuring that his own art was distinctive, integrating both old and new approaches to his work.
This winter at the NGV International on St Kilda Road in Melbourne, the exhibition Degas: A New Vision opening on June 24 will showcase the ‘voyeuristic glamour’ of the artist’s innovative works during his age.
A former law student who studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris courtesy of his father, as well as in Naples, Florence and Rome, Edgar Degas was not interested in ‘art for art’s sake’. Reputedly an obsessive character by nature, he lived in the bohemian district of Montmartre for most of his life.
At first like so many others, he began his career by working on historical subjects. However he lived nearby to many other artists and their studios, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt and Vincent van Gogh.
It was fellow artist and friend Edouard Manet who drew him into the Impressionists ouevre, helping him to change his focus and explore new subjects in contemporary life and café scenes.
He produced many works featuring the everyday workingwomen in his neighbourhood, including milliners, dressmakers, dancers and laundresses. Art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose gallery was also nearby, gave an exhibition of Degas’ first ballet pictures in 1871.
… ‘the rose of the flesh in the whiteness of the linen, under the milky mist of gauze, makes the most charming background for light and tender colourings’…*
Pre-eminent Edgar Degas scholar and biographer and former Director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris Henri Loyrette will visit Melbourne to open this landmark show.
Loyrette, who is the principal curator of the exhibition, has written a comprehensive new publication to accompany the most significant international survey of Degas’ work in decades. He will also share his insights in a special symposium.
This very special exhibition will also be on show at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
The collaborative aim between the two institutions is to ‘…provide audiences with a rare experience, to truly be immersed in the creativity and originality of his art, giving visitors a deeper and richer understanding of his brilliance’ said Director Tony Elwood.
The works of Edgar Degas are all about his mastery of movement, especially in his images for the ballet.
They are about patterns, passion and pain and represent the ‘technical, conceptual and expressive freedoms’ able to be expressed in a range of mediums, including sculpture and photography.
Degas’ age was an exciting time in many respects for artists because of the rapid advancement of technology and expansion of commercial opportunities.
A by product of the nineteenth century industrial revolution, meant that each new type of paint or crayon or the style of each new brush released, offered yet another prospect for painters to achieve very different results when applying paint to a canvas.
Without artifice or grandeur, they diffused light and bold colour to create exciting new compositions that captured a subjective impression of light and its ever-changing nature.
Edgar Degas however wanted to be seen as a realist, rather than an impressionist.
More than half his works depict dancers, partly because they sold so well and helped to feed an expensive lifestyle.
It was prominent art collector Albert Hecht who organised Degas’ attendance at the Paris Opera, where he was able to witness ‘dance examinations’ first hand.
His sculptural works include “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans”, one of Degas’ most important and iconic works, depicting a fourteen year old dancer cast in bronze 1922 – 1937.
She was fitted with real hair and was given a cotton tutu, real dancing slippers and a satin ribbon to wear.
Revealed in an Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the work was compared to a ‘monkey’ by critics.
They said she had a face “on which all the vices imprint their detestable promises, the mark of a particularly vicious character”.
The society workingwomen lived within in Degas’ day was certainly not a pretty one.
It certainly didn’t look kindly on those who ‘rose above their station and dancers were considered akin to prostitutes and were not paid very well.
This meant that most were forced to supplement their living ‘after dark’ when whoring was all about social security.
That attitude prevailed in Australia well into the 1930’s.
Why I know is at that time my aunt ran away to join the ‘ballet’ after Diaghilev bought the Ballet Russes to town.
She was never spoken to again by her parents and many of her siblings.
However she was my father’s most adored sister, she certainly featured in ours.
The women Degas depicted had an enormous amount of grit, a will to survive and a desire to rise above the status quo, although most often they did not succeed.
Degas interestingly liked some aspects of tradition especially when it was attached to personal honour.
This ensured his revolutionary approach to art became an enigma to those who knew the loyalty he had to his own family.
Degas in his life lived like a monk, his colleague Manet describing him as ‘not capable of loving a woman. He was particularly drawn to the murkiness and darker side of a dancer’s performance, where it is only pain that gives birth to all that beauty.
He was fascinated some would say obsessed, at the ugliness and anguish underneath as he captured their daily life through form, pattern and sequence.
In many ways we are today perhaps at the other extreme seeing the works as fashionable; gorgeous and darling, instead of perhaps somewhere in between.
Nineteenth century fashionable French brothers Goncourt, Edmund and Jules recorded events and visitations in their journals after 1851 in their ‘hard and horrible struggle against anonymity’. In February 1874, they said of a visit to the studio of Edgar Degas.
‘The painter shows you his pictures, explaining from time to time by imitating developments in choreography, by the imitation of an arabesque to use the language of a dancing girl; and it is really very amusing to watch him with his arms rounded, mingling the aesthetics of a dancing master with the aesthetics of a painter’.
The Goncourt Journals also noted ‘… the legs of the dancers are fantastically silhouetted upon a window as they go down a little staircase, with the striking spot of red of a tartan in the midst of all these floating white clouds, with the wretched and silly maître de ballet waiting to start them off. And I have, before me, nature taken by surprise in the graceful twisting, in the movements and gestures of these little monkey-girls.’
Degas it seems in many ways looked through a keyhole at life.
He used an incredible palette of colours for his dancers, which were available in pastels, short sticks of pure colour made from pigments by the family of Henri Roche.
The atelier Pastels de Roche still operates today, providing a glimpse for contemporary students of the brilliant yellows, blues, pinks and greens pastels Degas used, enabling them to connect with his works of art.
Degas lasting impressions are seen most vividly in his dancers; a performance art whose form and style as it evolves remains just as his paintings, full of possibilities.
As the years went on the lines between reality and fantasy finally became blurred.
His eyesight failed and his early impressions gradually gave way to abstraction – both visionary and unrealistic.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Degas: A New Vision Symposium
Friday 24 June, 2pm-5pm
Complex and compelling, Edgar Degas has fascinated the art world for over a century. From his paintings of ballerinas to the social world of Parisian nightlife, Degas’ works demonstrate great technical, conceptual and expressive skill and reveal his openness to experiment with a range of mediums. The creativity and originality of Degas’ art will be celebrated with fresh insights into the artist’s life and work from leading international experts.
Speakers Henri Loyrette, Exhibition Curator; Ann Hoenigswald, Senior Conservator of Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Gary Tinterow, Director, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, NGV
Venue NGV International, Clemenger BBDO Auditorium
Friday Nights at NGV
Fridays from 24 June to 16 September, 6pm-10pm
To complement the 2016 Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition Degas: A New Vision, the NGV stays open late with Friday Nights at NGV. Running over thirteen weeks, visitors can enjoy after-hours access to the exhibition, music, short talks, food and bars, and performances by local and international acts. This winter, rock, folk, pop and garage punk are all on the menu. Doors open 6pm. Headline act 8.30pm.
Line-up Clare Bowditch, The Goon Sax, The Grates, Husky, The Apartments, Halfway, Jen Cloher, The Painted Ladies, Jess Ribeiro, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds (USA), Mick Harvey: Intoxicated Man – The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg, Pierce Brothers, Augie March
* Goncourt Journals (Edmond and Jules de Goncourt) Greenwood Press, 1968
Degas Images and captions courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, 2016