Degas’s Human Animals

Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, about 1896-99

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, (c. 1896-9), charcoal and pastel on paper, 28 x 47 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.248), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection (National Gallery, 20 September 2017-30 April 2018) is an exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculpture, mostly loaned from the collection of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. It is held to mark the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Twenty-two paintings, pastels and drawings from the huge and wide-ranging art collection of Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) are united with a Degas pastel Burrell donated to Berwick-on-Tweed Museum and a handful of other Degas works to form a reasonable display of some of Degas’s typical subjects. Portraits, early academic studies, prints and landscapes are missing from the selection.

Degas became the quintessential modern artist by turning away from the classical art he knew so well and instead using poses taken from everyday life. His is the first art that features figures which slouch, stretch, yawn and scratch. Whereas these actions might have been confined to minor supporting characters or used in genre paintings for to moral or satirical purpose, Degas is the first to take such actions and present them without overt comment. We see figures contorted in instances of private ablution.

Woman in a Tub, about 1896-1901

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub (c. 1896-1901), pastel on paper, 60.8 × 84.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.236), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Here we have humanity as it is, sometimes ungainly, sometimes ugly. Critics saw this and criticised Degas for treating human beings – and especially women – as animals. Of course, the day’s convention dictated that Degas’s images of human animals were considered unsightly treatment of the fairer sex. The aura of respect and romance regarding a woman’s figure was overturned in the series of Toilettes. Even in the portraits of woman there is the impression of imbalance and awkwardness that would become a commonplace aspect of Modernist art. Subjects are placed off centre, stiff, distracted, vulnerable – the opposite of the projections of confidence, authority and contentment that were standard in society portraiture. In group portraits such as that of the Bellelli family (c. 1867) and Sulking (c. 1870) we see the imperfect unions of temperamentally contrasting individuals in relationships.

Jockeys in the Rain, about 1883-86[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, (c. 1883-6), pastel on tracing paper, 46.9 x 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.241), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas had a keen interest in horses and studied animal locomotion. In the race-course scenes such as Jockeys in the Rain (c. 1883-6) the nervous tension of horses and men about to race is conveyed through the alert heads and raised forelegs of the horses. A drawing shows a horse exhausted after a race. It is unknown how much Degas knew of sequential photography of animal locomotion.

The End of the Race, about 1882

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The End of the Race, (c. 1882-90), chalk on tracing paper, 14.6 × 19.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.233), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Sir William Burrell was a shipping magnate who built an eclectic collection. Although rich, he was unable to compete with the American magnate collectors, and his Degas works are mainly small and inexpensive works on paper. There are a number of larger works. The outstanding work in the group is a portrait of art critic Edmond Duranty (1879) in his study, a picture which has not travelled to London for the display. The catalogue essay by Vivien Hamilton discusses the detailed history of Burrell’s collection of Degas, much of it informed by his friendship with Alexander Reid (1854-1928), the Scottish art dealer who had been friends with Vincent and Theo van Gogh and had conducted picture-trading business with the latter.

Burrell’s collection of Degas (which tended to be on loan to museums rather than in his home) includes pieces various in subject, medium and finish. There are highly finished oil paintings on canvas, oil essence paintings on paper and densely worked pastels. A revealing drawing on canvas (c. 1897) of a woman washing herself over a basin is barely started.

Woman Bathing, about 1897

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman at her Toilette (c. 1897), pastel on canvas, 78.7 × 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.229), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

As an art work it is unsatisfying but as studio material witnessing the creative process it is interesting. Degas sketched out the whole composition in black and then roughly applied colour to some of the background, dresser top and hair but none to the basin or the skin of the body.

Girl Looking Through Field Glasses, about 1866-72

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman looking through Field Glasses, (c. 1869), pencil and oil (essence) on paper, 32 × 18.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.239), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

An early oil sketch on paper shows a spectator at a horse race, looking towards us through field glasses. There are several scenes of ballerinas practising, made in Degas’s early tight and realistic style.

 

The Green Room, about 1877-82

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Preparation for the Class (c. 1877), pastel on paper, 58 x 83 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.238), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

The realism is relative. The veracity of Degas’s observations is condensed into compilations of poses and figures which are fictitious. His frequent visits to the opera meant that the artist became familiar with poses, costumes, attitudes and settings, which he could combine according to his aesthetic aims.

Other works include some excellent nudes in pastel and a scene two women at a jeweller’s shop.

The Jewels, about 1887

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, At the Jewellers, (c. 1887), pastel on paper, 71.2 x 49 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.228), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas looked at human behaviour in anthropological terms, catching their expressions and body language as subjects interacted. This can be seen in the tableaux set in laundries, cafés and milliner’s shops. The subjects engage in work, leisure or shopping in ways that appear as though they are unaware they are being observed. Actually, these pictures were never created in situ – Degas often worked from memory, adjusted or invented settings and had models pose in his studio. The influence of photography can be seen in the odd cropping and decentred compositions, regardless of the fact actual photographs apparently almost never served as sources. (See especially Place de la Concorde (1876).) On a few occasions at the end of his life he used photographs as sources. His maxim was to create something artificial from memory and then add an accent of nature to make it persuasive.

Another essay explains the artist’s materials and techniques. Technical analysis has advanced in recent years. (For discussion of this see these article: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/degas-themes-and-finish/  and http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/) Degas was unusual among the Impressionists in his use of many academic techniques, wide range of materials and his adoption of pastel and mixed media. This makes Degas’s art rewarding and surprising to researchers of his materials.

This excellent and enjoyable exhibition (and catalogue) are recommended.

 

*     *     *     *

 

Degas and his Model is a first full English translation of a text published in 1919, published in two issues of Mercure de France. The author is Alice Michel – apparently a nom de plume. It purports to be the memoirs of a model called Pauline, who modelled for Degas over 1900-1910. There is debate about the authenticity of text, which seems to have been at least assisted by a professional writer. If it is a fake, it is a good one. It is full of both expected information and unexpected touches that convey have the touch of intimate observation – quite like a Degas pastel.

The short book tells us of Pauline’s experience of working for Degas as he worked on a Plastiline sculpture. Degas gives her a difficult pose and berates her when she struggles to hold the pose or requires breaks. He is demanding and impatient. He evades discussing or showing his art, though he is curious and a touch possessive when models talk about modelling for other artists. His studio is cluttered and dirty, as he forbids his servant from cleaning except around the coal stove. It is gloomy because the windows are covered to protect his eyes, which had grown sensitive by this time. (The 1900-1910 period was Degas’s last period of production. His blindness curtailed his productivity thereafter; in 1912 he was forced to leave his apartment and it is thought he made no work between 1912 and his death in 1917.) In a touching scene, he asks Pauline to tell him the colour of the pastel he is holding, demonstrating how damaged his eyesight was.

The account centres on the sessions for a statuette of a woman standing on one leg and studying the sole of her foot. It was a stressful pose and the pay was poor. The artist would have to feel her body sometimes as he worked on the figurine. He would use a compass or callipers to measure her dimensions. On many days he would grumble about the cost of everyday items and mock the pursuit of honours by artists. Yet he could also be kind and thoughtful. He would sing minuets from operas and mutter outlandish fables while he worked. There would be a touch of banter between artist and model and he would sometimes mention his past travels but he was wary about talking more generally about his ideas on art. There is very little about specific works of art by Degas or his great collection. Pauline may have been observant but Degas was reticent and volunteered to show her very little.

Degas and his Model is a glimpse of Degas in his twilight: nearly blind, frail, tired, working slowly but still working.

Alice Michel, Jeff Nagy (trans.), Degas and His Model, David Zwirner Books, 2017, paperback, 88pp, no illus., $12.95, ISBN 978 1 941 701 553

Vivien Hamilton et al., Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection, The National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 112pp, 50 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1857096255

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Artist and social economist, Professor Hans Abbing has looked at the fine arts (encompassing dance, classical – not pop – music, opera and theatre but primarily concentrating on the visual fine arts) and sees an economy that does not function like any other. In Why Are Artists Poor? Abbing seeks to understand how this singular market operates, drawing on academic research and statistics and demonstrating through anecdotal examples. Some of Abbing’s findings make profoundly uncomfortable reading for people who accept many common assumptions about the arts. Here are Abbing’s main findings…”

For the full article visit The Jackdaw here: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1748

New Order

“Murder Machines

This year a sculpture by Sam Durant entitled Scaffold was erected in a sculpture park managed by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The wooden sculpture juxtaposed elements of playground-activity structures and gallows. One minor aspect of Scaffold referred to the hanging of Dakota Native Americans in 1862 as part of struggles between the Dakota Nation and the American government. That reference had been missed until it was pointed out, at which time a campaign to remove the sculpture was begun by the Dakota. “This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry,” said a member of the Dakota Nation, equating Scaffold with an actual gallows that hanged members of the Dakota. In May the museum destroyed Scaffold and the artist renounced his work.

This year there was a protest by some black artists against the display at the Whitney Biennial of a painting of murdered black activist Emmett Till. Black activists lobbied to have the painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, removed as offensive and hurtful. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” said one protestor, claiming ownership and authority over the representation of a historical event.

In these two cases, activists claimed ownership over aspects of history in order to suppress art works. In one case it resulted in the destruction of art. Pressure groups have noticed the weakness of curators, administrators and politicians and their unwillingness to protect art from censorship. Sympathetic towards notions of social justice, administrators sometimes submit to emotional blackmail by groups which demand censorship…”

To read the full article visit The Jackdaw: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1750

Canon Fodder

“The canon of great art has never been the target of greater ire than it is today, but many leftist critics and their traditionalist opponents misunderstand the canon. The truth is unsettling for both groups. This essay seeks to clarify the nature of the canon at a time when it is an especially contentious subject.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

Last year art-history A-level was scrapped due to low take-up, then, after a campaign to reverse the decision, it was reinstated. This allowed New Criticism a foothold in school art-history teaching. When the new curriculum was developed, there was a downgrading of the master artists of Europe. Sarah Phillips, designer of new art-history syllabus, said “It is a global specification. Students won’t just study the work of dead white men. They will have the opportunity to study Islamic architecture and work by men and women of all colours and creeds.” Perhaps students will be tested on artist skin colour in exams.

“Art history is the study of power, politics, identity and humanity; it makes perfect sense to keep the exam,” said Jeremy Deller. One doesn’t envy students wanting to learn about painting only to be dragooned into political-education courses and harangued on the purported crimes of their forefathers, who were more likely to have been agricultural labourers toiling in fields than redcoats bayonetting babies in India. Perhaps A-level art history would have better remained decently defunct…”

To read the full article go to the The Jackdaw here: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1756

Le Cabaret de l’informe: The Sculpture of Medardo Rosso

MER_1018

[Image: Medardo Ross, Ecce puer (Beyond the Child) (1906), plaster coated with sealant, Museo Medardo Rosso]

The current exhibition of art Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is staged like an intimate cabaret performance. (Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, closes 10 February 2018; full catalogue) With the velvet curtains across the door, no natural light and the spotlighting from above, it could be an exclusive brothel or a scene from a David Lynch film. The few heads on display are beautiful, peculiar, delicious and troubling. In this exclusive and luxurious setting (and high-end location, in a street known for its super-expensive boutiques selling jewellery, watches and clothing), we come to commune with something hidden and rare that combines the beautiful and disconcerting.

The display uses lighting carefully. Contemporary writers noted Rosso’s obsession with controlling lighting to increase the impact of his sculptures.[i] The exhibition comprises ten heads and two groups of sculpture, with two vitrines of drawings and photographs of drawings. The photographs are largely vintage prints of drawings, which Rosso printed to exhibit in place of the drawings – a novel decision at the time. The plinths are rough and worn, echoing the rugged and weathered character of the casts they display. It is commendable that the exhibition designers have chosen not to put all behind glass. With such delicate and valuable objects that must have been a conscious gamble to refrain from using glazing. (NB: Images show all the works without glazing.)

[Images: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The selection of work, some of which is borrowed from Museo Medardo Rosso, Barzio, Italy, (including some of his best-known heads) is assembled in London. The early Carne altrui (The Flesh of Others) (1883-4) shows the head of a sleeping prostitute. It falls in line with the work of the Impressionists, with their interest in the anonymous members of the urban under-class, realistic subject matter and a desire to forge non-naturalistic styles to capture effects seen in life. A roughly modelled sculpture of a baby at a breast plays with illegibility, so strong are the marks of Rosso’s tools and fingers. Rosso was one of the few Italian artists who expressed an interest in the recent developments in French art. This played a part in Rosso’s decision to move to Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, in 1889.

The deep purple-mahogany woodgrain effect of Ecce puer (1906), cast in plaster stained with sealant, gives it an organic-mineral character. The impression of worn stone is common in Rosso’s heads. Features of anonymous figures are eroded or blurred as if by water or frost. We can also consider the sculpture of a veiled woman by Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881) especially in relation to Madame Noblet (c. 1897-8).

IMG_0293

[Image: Raffaelle Monti, Veiled Vestal (1847), marble]

Viewing statues of laughing figures is a curious experience in a way that it is not with paintings. Maybe it is the lack of pictorial distance and the existence of the insistent physical presence of an object sharing space with the viewer that makes sculpture more disconcerting to us. We are under the apprehension of being with a person and not having got the joke. Perhaps we are the subject of mockery or are in the presence of a hysteric. That freezing of a momentary action that is one of the more powerful and relatable instance of human contact we experience is significant. It is a joke we can never draw any amusement from, only observe in incomprehending alien fashion. Another unsettling aspect is the way figures are shown in motion, often close to toppling over. This adds to Rosso’s reputation as an Impressionist in that he captured transitory moments.

Rosso used colour in a manner that broke with the monochrome tradition of Italian statuary established in the Renaissance and furthered by Bernini. His colour choices depart from the monochromy of plain material, the tinting of stone by Canova and the polychromy of religious figures. He uses colour in an Impressionist manner – strong, non-naturalistic, roughly blended. In the wax cast of Bambino ebero (Jewish Boy) (c. 1892-4) is an assertively artificial yellow. This is an aspect of his art that is often overlooked.

Rosso produced only around 50 unique sculptures and nothing new after 1906. Most of these compositions were cast by the artist multiple times in different materials. He manipulated each cast, preferring to use fragile plaster and wax instead of bronze. Rosso became known in Paris for his theatrical casting, which privileged insiders, critics and collectors could witness. Rosso used casting as performance and photographs of his studio and his casts were sent by Rosso as postcards and published.

The vitrines contain drawings and vintage prints of photographs of drawings and sculptures which Rosso exhibited, distributed and published. Some of the drawings were made on scraps of hotel stationery, including envelopes. The drawings of figures and street scenes are small, rough, provisional and tonal. They are somewhat similar to Seurat’s, whose drawings Rosso should have known. As drawings they are not especially strong. The practice of using photographs of art as art is innovatory on a conceptual level and worthy of discussion.

Ropac Gallery24812

[Image: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The impression of viewing a form which fluctuates between being and not being is characteristic of Rosso’s late sculpture. This quality of extreme mutability generates a type of anxiety we may associate with Georges Bataille’s definition of l’informe. The form before us evades exact classification and calls into question our certitude regarding all categories by being simultaneously of a member of exclusive sets and not of any single one. The informe indicates chaos and entropy and breaches the human ambiguity-discomfort threshold. Thinking about it does not help: the horror of chaos only impinges further. As an animal which evolved to crave the certainty of discerning the edible from the inedible and the spoor of the prey animal from that of the predator animal, homo sapiens seeks certainty above all else. Humans are not developed for dwelling upon the boundary-crossing and profoundly ambiguous. Yet think we must, for as problem-solvers we are drawn to the ambiguous and seek to either resolve the problem or at least grade it as an insoluble or unimportant problem so it can be set aside (however temporarily).

The idea of the informe was broached by Bataille in 1929 in the Surrealist journal Documents; it was revived by art theorists in the 1990s, who put it forward as a historical precursor to one strand of Late Modernist practice and Post-Modernist theory, namely the entropic. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, Richard Serra, Eva Hess, Lynda Benglis and others used techniques which harnessed unpredictable physical properties of objects and substances to generate art they could not control in a fine manner, thereby violating one of traditions of art: that of the artist as a maker with supreme control of his materials. These artists did have some control over their materials in the way they selected and manipulated materials but this did not afford full control.

The informe of Rosso gives us material that resolutely refuses to subordinate itself to the designated form. It gives us the human form in fragmentary fashion but much of it remains unshaped; sometimes a majority of the material is unformed. In comparison to the quantity if figural matter, the proportionately large quantity of the unformed superfluous matter challenges the idea that the matter is in the service of representation. The unformed excess, the ostensible setting, takes on an importance by dint of its quantity. The lack of detail and degree of ambiguity in Rosso’s later heads give the impression of matter in the process of making form and form on the verge of returning to primordial matter. Rosso was known in his day for allowing the imperfections of his casts to remain and not be subject remedial post-casting processes. Thus rips, bubbles and cracks in casts, the prominent nails and sprues of the casting process and the excess slurry that would ordinarily have been removed or ameliorated remained as part of the final state of object.[ii] It is true that Rosso’s sculptures do display pure entropic formlessness but they infuse likenesses made in the consummate realistic Western tradition of modelled sculpture with the repugnant presence of unformed matter. Viewed retrospectively, these sculptures stand as precursors to both the abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists and the artful deformations of the Expressionists, Soutine and Francis Bacon.

[link to review of new books and catalogues on Rosso to be added here]

 

6 February 2018

[i] Sharon Hecker, Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form, 2018, Pulitzer , p. 19

[ii] We should not neglect the aspect of debasement that Bataille mentioned in his definition. Semi-liquid slurry – especially when seen in conjunction with the human form – has the connotation of bodily waste and internal bodily substance which we abhor seeing openly, as this associated with injury and death. More broadly, such indistinct matter reminiscent of excreta and internal bodily substance is repellent and horrible to us as dangerous, filthy or irredeemable (that is, an injury so extreme that substantial internal matter was exposed was almost invariably fatal and thus literally unredeemable or unrepairable).

Lake Keitele: Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Lake Keitele N-6574-00-000015-A5

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), oil on canvas, 53 x 66 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London.]

The National Gallery has staged a comparative exhibition (15 November 2017-4 February 2018, free entry) included one of its best loved paintings. Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), depicts the landscape of the Finnish painter’s homeland. It is a post-glacial terrain of many lakes, extensive and dense fir forests and clear air. The composition – which shows a long view over a large lake, with a wooded islet near the high horizon, tumultuous cloud at the top of the picture – was painted by the artist a number of times. It is these versions which form the centrepiece of this exhibition.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) has become the Finnish painter par excellence. By biographical good fortune he happened to be the most nationally and internationally renowned Finnish painter working at the time of Finland’s independence from Russia (on 6 December 1917). He was also famous and beloved by compatriots due to his cycle of paintings retelling the Finnish myth of Kalevala. Gallen-Kallela was an unabashed patriot. He changed his name from Axel Waldemar Gallén to distance himself from the socially dominant Swedish culture, which formed the elite of the Russian controlled Grand Duchy of Finland, at a time when the Finnish independence movement reached a peak. One can see similar trends in the history of Norway (and other countries) at the same time.

He travelled to Paris to train at Académie Julian and Académie Cormon, studying the new French naturalism strain of realism pioneered by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). He also came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement in London. As he became more interested in crafts – both European and Finnish – and began to design stained glass, tapestries and other applied art, his art diverged from the naturalism of his training. The skills and knowledge needed to create craft objects anchored the maker to a discipline at once refreshingly direct and yet steeped in refinement borne of generations of workers, mostly anonymous.

The influence of Art Nouveau and Symbolism came through both fine and applied arts and can be seen in non-naturalistic coloration and emphatic arabesques. Travels in southern latitudes (including Africa and New Mexico) also altered Gallen-Kallela’s palette, reducing the grey mid-tones, half-tones and muted light effects in his paintings. His art was taken up by Fauvists, die Brücke and Symbolists. The later work has tendency towards technical crudeness, a lessening of attention to nuance and garishness in colour.

Clouds, 1904

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Clouds (1904), oil on canvas, 64 x 64 cm, Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo (c) Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki.]

The works on display in London are largely in the earlier period of realism with a few later canvases indicating the later period. Four versions of the iconic image are gathered  in London: the National Gallery’s version, two from museums in Finland and one from private collection. The differences in size and approach are small. Only the Art Nouveau/Symbolist style signature square and plainness of the lanes of wind-ruffled water distinguish the Lahti Art Museum version from the others.

Gallen-Kallela’s choice of the Kalevala is both a personal and political choice. His deep feeling for nature led to his best paintings. Lake Keitele was not only an example of quintessential of Finnish nature it was also the site for events in the Kalevala narrative. Thus the choice of the lake as image carries a double symbolic weight. The wooded islet close to the high horizon was a motif that appeared in other paintings in the artist’s work. There are other effective paintings and an attractive pastel of the motif. The figure paintings here are not the artist’s best but are included as examples of his portraits and mythological scenes. The 13 exhibited items act as a cross-section of Gallen-Kallela’s thematic, technical and stylistic range.

Lake Keitele X9630-A5

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Landscape (1915), pastel on paper, 101 x 95 cm, private collection. Photo (c) courtesy of the owner.]

This exhibition represents the best of the artist’s work and highly recommended. The catalogue acts as a good primer for readers unfamiliar with Gallen-Kallela’s art and is clear and informative.

Anne Robbins, Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland, National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 72pp, 35 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1 857 0 96248