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Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, aka Edgar Degas, arrived 19 July 1834, born into money. A god of art, the finest drawer of the human animal of his time and since, Picasso, Egon Schiele et al notwithstanding. He turns 175 this Sunday.

Did you manage to catch the Degas show in Canberra? (See the NGA’s slideshow.) Not a first-rater but Degas is one of those artists who still command intense interesting even when they are not at their best. It’s that superb hand. That superb eye.

(David Hockney – one of the great draughtsmen – put it like this: ‘If you compare [Barnett] Newman as a painter to, say, Degas, I think you can see that Newman is concerned more with ideas – obsessively so, because he is not as good an artist as Degas. He is more concerned with theory as well, though Degas was too – any good artist is … But it’s Degas’ eyes and attitudes that matter, the responses he got, the responses he in part “felt”.’)

He was part of the great artistic act of making the body do what normal folk do. Duh. Yes, well, but he and Manet, in particular, and in different directions, set about liberating the female figure and female nude from the calcified postures and boundaries of the classical ideal and conventions. This is why we see, in Degas’ paintings, so many dancers and stage performers, laundry women, prostitutes, and women taking baths. They became recognisable humanity, no longer a stand-in for the Greek gods, or a semi-platonic statement gesturing towards … you could call it, the supermodel look of the day, or – given its historical frame – ‘What Men Think They Desire’. Women became everyday people; their grace their own; their tired yawning only their own tiredness.

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(The mention of Degas also – but of course – makes me itch about drawing and figuration in the age of photograph. He was an early co-opter of photography, using it as source material for some of his paintings. But tempting as it is to blather on about that now, writing it will be like wrestling with a passive-aggressive art historian who’s been training for a triathlon, so maybe in another post.)

It’s worth noting that the severe and irascible Degas was always in some measure of doubt about his life-long project – a reassuring thought for any lesser artist. In his twenties he wrote in a letter to his mentor, Gustave Moreau: ‘I remember the conversation we had in Florence on the unhappiness which is the lot of those devoted to art. There was less exaggeration than I thought in what you said. This unhappiness has hardly any compensation really. It increases with age and experience, and youth no longer consoles you with a few more hopes and illusions. Whatever affection you have for your family, whatever passion for art, there is a void which even that can’t fill.’

At the end – he died in 1917 at 83 –  he instructed his old friend Jean-Louis Forain that there should be no funeral oration. And if forced to say something only this: ‘He loved drawing very much, and so do I.’

Many happy returns, M. Degas.

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