British exhibition demythologizes Degas

DEGAS once remarked - apropos of his domestic paintings and pastels of women bathing themselves in ``le tub'' - ``It's odd to think that in another era I would have painted Suzannah and the Elders.'' This was not quite the passing thought it appeared to be, if we are to believe Richard Thomson. A Lecturer in Art History at Manchester University, Mr. Thomson has devised an exhibition (``The Private Degas'') and accompanying book that fascinatingly explore the French 19th-century artist's working methods and thought processes.

Paramount among these procedures throughout his working life was what Degas called the need to ``follow the advice the old masters give you in their works while doing something different from them.''

Thomson takes up this paradoxical mixture that was Degas: on one hand a modern artist devoted to modern subject matter and endlessly intrigued by untried techniques and media, and on the other an artist with tremendous and unflagging respect for the past. His respect is manifest in some 500 copies of other artists' work that he made during his career, many of them old masters.

Though he was a quick and prolific observer, and had a love affair with spontaneity and movement that is central to his art, he himself made it clear that his works were actually contrived, arranged, and arrived at.

``One must contrive to give the impression of nature by false means; but it must appear true,'' he said. He traced and reversed and transferred and printed and off-printed his own images, ceaselessly investigating every possible aspect of them.

The studio was the place where he cooked up all these seemingly immediate images. It is his ``commitment to the studio as a space for private thought and ceaseless experiment'' that Thomson draws attention to in this show, emphasizing the side of Degas' art that was fed by other art.

Though this British Arts Council-sponsored show is a major exhibition, it does not display, on the whole, ``major'' works. That in itself is revealing. Here we have charcoal drawings, pastels, monotypes, lithographs, pencil drawings, drawings in ``essence,'' sculptures, and oil paintings. These often reveal different stages in the development of a finished picture. In work after work, one senses an artist who relished every thing he did, who loved process as much as fulfillment.

In Degas' oeuvre, perfectionism may have been the end-all but it was certainly not the be-all. There is no sense, when looking at his ``unfinished'' works, that one is seeing incomplete and insignificant aspects of his art. Instead the viewer is plunged into the rich midst of the ``doing'' aspect of his work, its day-by-day practice, its exercise, its muscle flexing.

It's as though Degas thought of art as preparation - like the preparation that his dancers engage in. He watched his ballerinas back stage, deglamorizing them, witnessing the labor that precedes the stage-lit fantasy. In turn Thomson, by looking at Degas' work processes, to some extent demythologizes him.

But in the end the art is too resilient, too energetic, and too subtle for it to be seriously threatened by such analysis.

Particularly revealing are the examples Thomson finds of old art reappearing in changed form in Degas works. He suggests, for instance, that the painting of the acrobat ``Miss Lala,'' hanging by her teeth from the ceiling of the Cirque Fernando, relates directly to a drawing the artist had made of one of the flying figures in Michelangelo's Last Judgment fresco. Thomson furthers the point by arguing that the Miss Lala picture is part of the evidence that Degas was a frustrated muralist. Degas certainly said that he had always wanted to paint on walls.

In another instance Thomson suggests that an early painting called ``The Duet (The Singing Rehearsal)'' has ``a clandestine presence'' in it of a Veronese (studio) ``Annunciation'' that Degas had seen in Genoa. It is this kind of absorption of past art that makes Degas' art such a field-day for art historians.

There may not be a copy of a ``Suzannah and the Elders'' here, but an oil sketch after ``St. Paul Preaching at Ephesus'' by Le Sueur rubs shoulders with Degas lithographs and monotypes of the caf'e-concert singer Mlle B'ecat; a drawing after Raphael of two figures in ``contraposto'' (each twisting simultaneously in two directions) are confronted by a Degas charcoal study of two dancers in tights (also, notes Thomson, in ``contraposto''); and a sheet of chalk copies of the classical sculpture ``The Borghese Gladiator'' is juxtaposed with drawings and statuettes of the ``Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.''

Such connections are puzzling to visitors not equipped with Thomson's book. The show's explanatory wall texts do always make his thesis clear. Nor can you use his book like a guide to the show. It has a numbered catalog at the back, but the plate numbers do not tally with the numbers of the works on view; some of the book's illustrations, indeed, are not in the show at all.

But the effort demanded to grasp Thomson's points is worthwhile. ``The Borghese Gladiator'' is there because Degas studied it from a number of different angles. This leads one to observe that sculpture and painting became more and more intertwined in Degas' study of the objective world. His paintings might almost be said to have evolved naturally into sculpture, so eager was he to investigate his figures from every side. Yet he never abandoned the two-dimensional for the three. His late paintings and drawings achieve a massive sculptural quality that is all the more impressive because they are two-dimensional. He obviously continued to be obsessed by this fruitful ambiguity of working in both flat and solid formats. This is borne out at the end of the show where one of his bronze ballerinas revolves slowly on a pedestal. Her silhouette is projected onto a white sheet so that she can be watched, like a shadow puppet, in two dimensions, her form foreshortening and then elongating.

The view of Degas presented here is consciously partial. It shows his ``academic'' side, continuing in his maturity the practices instilled into him in his youth, looking for precedents in the old masters and thinking of art as a continuation, or even a repetition in modern form, of an esteemed heritage. His great admiration for the much more recent giants of French painting, Ingres and Delacroix, is also looked at.

But many strands went into the making of Degas. Of these, his use of photography (only touched on here) deserves greater emphasis and study. The effect on the space in his paintings and the relationships of figures in space owes much to the discovery of Japanese art in Paris during his career - and this is not mentioned. But a first-rate TV documentary, shown on video as part of the show, fills in many aspects that the show excludes.

``The Private Degas'' closed at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England, Feb. 28. From March 17 to May 3 it will be at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.

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