Dancing in(to) Degas
Last Friday, as I was sitting in a Russian community hall drinking vodka from a paper cup reminiscent-of-a-music-festival and eating dumplings that definitely weren’t, I suddenly realised my weekend was devoid of any plans.
In fact, my next concrete commitment was for the following Wednesday.
While my first thought may have gone hedonistically to Netflix my next went more responsibly south. I would go south to Melbourne and visit my dad, who had just returned from my half-brother’s funeral in England. Resolve to drive 640km for a weekend perhaps strengthened a little by vodka; I called my stepmother to advise I would be arriving on the morrow (and you know, check, it was ok, I’m not a terrible houseguest).
Next day, armed with Silo’s largest coffee and Dido’s back catalogue I made the Melbourne pilgrimage. It was surprisingly much more bearable than I had thought, the only two scary moments being when I ran out of podcasts and when I ran into Melbourne’s mad web of speed cameras. (Seriously, so many. I’ve never seen motorists on a freeway driving 10km under the limit before).
As is not atypical for my father and me, we visited the National Gallery of Victoria on both of the full days I was there; checking out the permanent collection (and Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square with its excellent selection of Australian art) on day one and the Degas exhibition on day two.
The show is a monolithic testament to the skill of Edgar Degas who, I have to confess, I’ve generally associated exclusively with his foray into tulle. Apparently before the skirt-chasing, he was preparing to become a lawyer so one can only really congratulate him on finding a higher calling. It is arguable however that some of his legal training may have remained, engrained on his soul and etched into his work practices, as he created a simply inexhaustible number of sketches and studies for any one work. And the sketches are great.
This focus on repetition was highlighted by the below quote which was writ large on one of the walls and which greatly tickled my fancy:
“No art is less spontaneous than mine. What I do is a result of reflection and studies of the old masters. Of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.”
I think it is just glorious. And it impressed upon me anew how new (historically speaking) the requirement is for artists not only to capture reality (in its many shapes and guises) but to have some overarching but transcribable meaning or purpose when doing so.
The show then is an interesting and diverse mix of a multitude of these studies and sketches juxtaposed thematically with the work they inspired. The first rooms are also probably the least interesting (not generally a surprise in chronological retrospectives as very few artists worthy of such things peak at the beginning) but for the old master copies which stand as testament to a seeking rediscovery of colour and form and an interest in moving away from the so-called tyranny of line. Conversely enough, Degas' later works would witness a brilliant unfolding of colour and form - so much so that he would go in at the end with a black line and demarcate out the figurative gestures.
My dad’s favourite discovery (once he got over his pet peeve of people looking at their phones instead of the art – which naturally necessitates him looking unrelentingly at them instead of the art) was the complexity of Degas backgrounds, particularly in his portraits. Not generally won over by figurative works, he was transfixed by the mix of colour and texture that grounded them into the frame. One supposes that these beautiful abstractions would have been inspired by the sitters’ patterned wallpaper.
My pick of the bunch were the toilette scenes. Like artists before and since, Degas appears to have had a strong weakness for a good derriere. Luckily for us this foible transmutes into truly wonderful studies and works in charcoal and pastel. The pastel nudes in particular are glorious; I’ve never thought a lower back could be such a stunning shade of scarlet until Degas showed that it was not only possible but strongly advisable.
In fact, Degas liked buttocks so very much that a lot of what are called his ‘ballet’ series still feature prominent bottoms sans any tulle protection. Probably more apt to term these nude-people-doing-ballet-poses. But you know, tomato, tomato.
There are of course also the traditional Degas ballet works – all pastel and pomp, frills and fixative. And they are really very beautiful, if not a little expected. His early sketches though, documenting the search for movement and the difficulty of limbs in motion, are captivating. The difficulty with movement is also manifest in his later works where the drive to capture almost takes the figures to abstraction – but for the final black lines that pin limbs back to page.
In contrast, the bronze room (as the name suggests, a room filled with about twenty bronze casts) is both unexpected and unexpected lumpy. The only Degas bronze I’d seen before (and which is on show here as well) is his ‘Little fourteen year old dancer’, which, clad in her muslin skirt and silkily hanging bow, I had glimpsed years earlier at the Tate Modern. That work still stays in my mind, a picture of pose and deportment, of refinement and care. The bronzes in this room in contrast seem almost hasty captures in a timeless medium of runaway moments; a woman posed forever in the moment of stepping out of the tub, but there is difficulty in distinguishing between her head and her shoulder.
The weakest area of the exhibition, or rather, going off the exhibition, of Degas’ body of work more generally, is undoubtedly his horse paintings. A fine and practiced draftsperson, his equine drawings are remarkably light and capture movement admirably. So too are his bronze horses, one of which would definitely have made it up my shirt and to a new home had the lights gone out (and the protective glass fallen away).
But the paintings…. they (for Degas) kinda suck. Devoid of any of the magic captured by Toulouse Lautrec in his horse paintings, they pant and lag behind the rest; static leaden beasts posed unnaturally, trapped in murky, overworked paint. They ought really to have a kindness visited upon them and be taken out the back and quietly shot.
It is, however, a huge and wondrous show, giving tremendous depth to an artist whose breadth was significantly wider than is commonly acknowledged and whose compositions (the unusual angles, the use of light as off-centred focal points!) were distinctly avant-garde.
If you’re in Melbourne before September, I definitely recommend popping by for a look. (And do not miss the gift shop as the catalogue is truly beautiful and very reasonably priced.) I can’t pass on any other shopping recommendations as, while I used to shop in Melbourne a lot, now every time the urge hits I have an Aperol Spitz.
It’s far more economical and after three you don’t want anything… other than eggplant fries (for which my pick is MoVida).
Degas: A New Vision is open till the 18th of September at the National Gallery of Victoria (open 10am-5pm daily). Tickets are heftier than a principal ballerina starting at $23 for NGV members, $24.50 for concessions and $28 for adults. My recommendation is try your luck as a child (5-15 years) which is a bargain 10 dollas.