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.

 

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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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