'Degas and the Nude' reveals a master of the human form
In its only US venue, the exhibition takes a wide-ranging look at the artist's complex and contradictory work, which defies easy interpretation.
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The exhibition was conceived by Mr. Shackelford along with Xavier Rey, curator of paintings at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, which holds the world's largest collection of Degas nudes. The Musée d'Orsay contributed 60 works to the exhibition, the most from a single source. Other contributors include the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with other museums and private collections.Skip to next paragraph
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The works offer neither a simple commentary on the role of the nude in art nor a simple insight into the thinking of Degas.
"Degas's art is, like his habits of mind, complex and contradictory, resisting either easy interpretation or precise definition," Shackelford writes in his curator's statement. "Degas's nudes reveal the complexity of his humanity, his wonder at the world outside his own body expressed through his representation of another body. His models' nakedness is, in the end, his own."
An early work, "Scene of War in the Middle Ages" (1863-65), for example, features nine female nude figures in various poses on a medieval battlefield dominated by male soldiers. The painting could have been a commentary on the American Civil War then underway, Shackelford surmises, or simply a general comment on men's inhumanity toward women during times of war. The female figures' prostration and nudity, in contrast to the armored males on horseback, emphasizes their vulnerability.
In a Degas sculpture, a nude woman examines her raised foot while perched precariously on the other. The position is complex, unusual, and contorted. Is she a dancer or a bather inspecting her foot? Why? We don't know.
A series of monotypes, not intended by Degas for public exhibition, depicts scenes in Paris brothels, some of which are sexually explicit. But even here, the intent may not have been so much to titillate as to comment on the world of the brothel and its role in 19th-century Parisian society, including issues of sanitation, health, morality, and social class.
Boston is the only US venue for "Degas and the Nude." The exhibition runs through Feb. 5. It will reopen at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (March 12 to July 1, 2012).