Edgar Degas, After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself) (c. 1896), oil on canvas; courtesy The Philadelphia Museum of Art
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Sitting on the train to Boston, on my way to see Degas and the Nude at The Museum of Fine Arts, I experienced feelings of trepidation. What would be the curatorial angle of the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to the French artist and his take on the female form? As someone who’s kept a despairing eye on the ways in which art is coerced to serve contemporary fashion, I feared Degas would be saddled with some or other theoretical imperative. Chalk it up to cultural paranoia, but, having recently suffered a colleague’s argument that one-point perspective is a tool of capitalist oppression, I was primed for a Dead White Male smackdown.
Imagine my surprise upon opening the exhibition catalogue and reading that George T. M. Shackleford and Xavier Rey—respectively, the MFA’s Chair of the Art of Europe and Curator of Paintings at the Musée d’Orsay—do not “subscribe to the view that a female model . . . because viewed by and recorded by a male artist, should perforce be the subject of a sexual transgression, however remote.” You mean, the Male Gaze, that pesky feminist bugaboo, isn’t inviolate? Shackleford and Rey won’t have it. Stating the case for art that resists “easy interpretation or precise definition,” the curators chose to highlight the nude as an integral component of the “personal, virtually impenetrable world of Degas’s . . . aesthetic predilections.”
The catalogue sets a standard for scholarly diligence. Every conceivable stone is overturned in the cause of elaborating on Degas’s vision. There’s the recurring use of the nude, of course, but also Degas’s relationship with artistic forebears and contemporaries, important painters he inspired, his immediate cultural milieu, and the bravura employment of media, particularly in the pastels and mono-prints. Could the exhibition touch the catalogue in terms of depth, exactitude, and exhaustiveness? It does and then some. Degas and the Nude is a triumph.
What is there left to discover about Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas (1834–1917)? He is, after all, a renowned artist, affiliated not only with Impressionism, that perennial crowd favorite, but a draftsman of singular, seemingly unerring gifts. And the ballerinas! What doctor’s office doesn’t include a reproduction of those beloved young girls? Given the emphasis of Degas and the Nude, viewers won’t find many tutus on view, but there is a charcoal and pastel study for The National Gallery’s Four Dancers (c. 1899), in which the title figures strike familiar poses, albeit in the buff. The “undressing” of the ballerinas is a fascinating fillip and testimony to Degas’s tenacious quest for pictorial rightness.
The exhibition is, in significant ways, a primer on artistic duty. Through numerous drawings, we watch Degas think his way through early (and very odd) canvases like Young Spartans Exercising (1860–62/80) andScene of War in the Middle Ages (1863–65), choreographing multiple figures in an almost collage-like manner. Printmaking allowed Degas to retain and explore variations on a single image, allowing for alterations in chiaroscuro, pattern, texture, and mood. The pastel drawings of women at their toilette exemplify Degas’s unshakable attachment to motif and means. We feel him stretch the media in ways very much in keeping with the contorted poses of his models. As for sculpture, Degas reveled in the analogous physicality of muscle and material. Many works are similar—no two are alike. The shadings of difference are nuanced and dramatic. Degas’s drive can be daunting to behold; his relentlessness knows no bounds.
Degas and the Nude is divided into six discrete, though by no means unrelated, sections: “The Classical Body,” “The Body in Peril,” “The Body Exploited,” “The Body Observed,” “The Body Exhibited,” and “The Body Transformed.” The trajectory of the exhibition is chronological, beginning with student drawings after Michelangelo, Ingres, Botticelli, and the live model, then on to The Bathers (c. 1895–1900), a late, fascinatingly unkempt work on paper. Artistic continuity with the early work is maintained even as it undergoes scrutiny. The exhibition goes somewhat off-course with “The Body Exploited,” wherein the subject matter—prostitutes and their clientele—occasions mild curatorial tut-tutting about misogyny, the requisite conjecturing about Degas’s sexuality, and heady tropes like “mechanisms regulating the world.”
Going off-topic isn’t completely unwarranted; the brothel pictures weren’t intended for public consumption and, given their specific emphasis, deserve a space apart. But if Degas’s art did absorb contemporary culture, however illicit, he was the furthest thing from a social commentator. Art was the thing for this most stringent of sensibilities. With rare exception, Degas’s brothel scenes abjure eroticism (or moralism) for the workaday, just-the-facts-ma’am nature of prostitution—that, and the profession’s unfettered and often highly theatrical scenarios. Rey is exactly right in pinpointing how the prostitutes were “denials of the traditional nude” and, as such, served as aids in enlarging Degas’s notion of the “body’s expressive possibilities.” Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine the terse, ungainly clarity of The Tub (1886) without Degas’s clear-eyed forays into Paris’s seamier precincts.
In their selective focus, Shackleford and Rey amplify Degas’s genius, reminding us just how peculiar and gifted—how important—he is and, for that matter, remains. The curators do so not only through securing a stunning array of Degas’s art, but by including pictures by artists from whom Degas took inspiration—Goya, Delacroix, and Puvis de Chavannes, among others—and by those he influenced, including Bonnard, Matisse, and Picasso. The juxtaposition of pictures by the latter artists with a handful of late Degas paintings is particularly noteworthy and, in the end, head-spinning. Rough-hewn Degas canvases like Woman Seated on a Bathtub, Sponging Her Neck (1880–95) and After The Bath, Woman Drying Herself(1895–1900) make the modernist upstarts look poky in comparison. It turns out that Degas’s artistic radicalism is still something we have fully to get a handle on. It’s the rare exhibition that prompts re-evaluation and revelation: Degas and The Nude is one of them.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally published in the December 2011 edition of The New Criterion.