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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Degas Mixes Media

Edgar Degas Self-portrait, 1855
I've always felt that artists should surprise people. I've always felt that way even before I really moved off in that direction myself, trying consistently to do things that make viewers blink, do a double-take, or maybe drop a jaw or two. One of my favourite artists felt the same way. At the Sixth Impressionists Exhibition in Paris in 1881, this well-known Impressionist from the very beginnings of the movement surprised a lot of people. In his painting, Edgar Degas often strayed from the straight and narrow Impressionist path trod by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and the others. In fact, by 1881, he was becoming more than a little disillusioned with Impressionism. But it wasn't his painting that surprised, even stunned, viewers at the show, but the fact that he'd changed mediums entirely. He'd exhibited a sculpture, and not just any sculpture, but one done life-size in wax. Add to that, he gave his lovely young ballerina real human hair, a muslin tutu, satin slippers, and silk ribbons.

Little Dancer of  Fourteen Years, 1879-80,
(1922 casting in bronze), Edgar Degas
Degas called his sculptural deviation Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. The French, even some of Degas' closest friends, gasped in dismay. Who did he think he was, Madame Tussuad? No, he didn't, and in truth, he made no attempt to give the figure any kind of natural colouration, made no attempt to "fool the eye." Still, it was a little too close to that waxy, thoroughly French tradition for the comfort of the average Parisian art connoisseur. They loved the subject of course, one of Degas' most frequent interests, but why couldn't he be satisfied just painting her? And what's this idea of adding real clothes to his figure? She'd probably have caused less of a stir if she'd been nude...even at fourteen. Also, even though most agreed the figure was really quite charming, Degas had no training as a sculptor; it was really quite disturbing. Actually, if the facts had been known, Degas had very little training as a painter either, probably less than a year in any kind of formal classes. In the face of his critics, Degas rebutted that he was an artist, and as such, the medium, or in this case, the mixing of media, really didn't matter.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873,
Edgar Degas
The French weren't so sure. The Americans, on the other hand, loved it. Degas had relatives in the United States. He visited them in New Orleans at one point in his career (left). By the time his little ballerina made it to these shores, she'd been cast in bronze, but still sported her homemade tutu, slippers, and the ribbons in her hair. Moreover, these items were no less startling in their presence having made the transition from wax to metal. I saw one of Degas' bronze dancers at the St. Louis Art Museum several years ago, and just as the artist had planned, I also did the proverbial double-take. Then I fell in love with the seemingly shy, somehow slightly sad little girl. Her tutu had not stood up to the years very well. Apparently original with the work, it sagged noticeably. The slippers and ribbons were faded, making the overall effect one of her having once been alive, and then somehow, her delicate, fragile youth having been made immortal by her metallic transformation. It was as if she'd sacrificed life for eternal youth.

Dancer Taking a Bow, 1878, Edgar Degas.
Moving from paint to wax to bronze.
In all of Degas' work, but especially in his little ballerina, you see the influence of Ingres, and of Delacroix. You see the work of a man who loved women, a man who loved them as they were, unadorned, comfortable, often in seemingly unflattering circumstances, yet never do you see anything less than women of great strength as well as beauty, even at age 14. If you visit an exhibit of Degas' work, you see a surprisingly diverse artist; you see why one of his originals recently sold for $25-million. You will see why American collectors loved Degas, perhaps more than did the French. I don't know, maybe the French don't like surprises. Degas was nothing if not versatile. His repertoire  included figure studies,  jockeys and race horses, dancers, women bathing, and of course, his impressionist landscapes. His sculptures, drawings, paintings, and pastels form an amazing trail for one man to have followed. And around every corner we find his surprises--an amazing trail for us to follow too.

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