Degas Mixes it UpI've always felt that artists should surprise people. I've always felt that way even though it's only been within the last two or three years that I've really moved off in that direction, trying consistently to do things that make viewers blink, do a double-take, or maybe drop a jaw or two. One of my favourite artists felt the same way. At the Sixth Impressionists Exhibition in Paris in 1881, this well-known Impressionist from the very beginnings of the movement surprised a lot of people. In his painting, Edgar Degas often strayed from the straight and narrow Impressionist path trod by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and the others. In fact, by 1881, he was becoming more than a little disillusioned with Impressionism. But it wasn't his painting that surprised, even stunned viewers at the show, but the fact that he'd changed mediums entirely. He'd exhibited a sculpture, and not just any sculpture, but one done life-size in wax. Add to that, he gave his lovely young ballerina real human hair, a muslin tutu, satin slippers, and silk ribbons.
Degas called his sculptural deviation Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. The French, even some of Degas' closest friends, gasped in dismay. Who did he think he was, Madame Tussaud? No, he didn't, and in truth, he made no attempt to give the figure any kind of natural colouration, made no attempt to "fool the eye." Still, it was a little too close to that waxy, thoroughly French tradition for the comfort of the average Parisian art connoisseur. They loved the subject of course, one of Degas' most frequent interests, but why couldn't he be satisfied just painting her? And what's this idea of adding real clothes to his figure? She'd probably have caused less of a stir if she'd been nude...even at fourteen. Also, even though most agreed the figure was really quite charming, he had no training as a sculptor; it was really quite disturbing. Actually, if the facts had been known, Degas had very little training as a painter either, probably less than a year in any kind of formal classes. In the face of his critics, Degas rebutted that he was an artist, and as such, the medium, or in this case, the mixing of media, really didn't matter.
The French weren't so sure. The Americans, on the other hand, loved it. Degas had relatives in the United States. He visited them in New Orleans at one point in his career. By the time his little ballerina made it to these shores, she'd been cast in bronze, but still sported her home-made tutu, slippers, and the ribbons in her hair. And they were no less startling in their presence having made the transition from wax to metal. I saw one of Degas' bronze dancers at the St. Louis Art Museum several years ago, and just as the artist had planned, I also did the proverbial double-take. Then I fell in love with the seemingly shy, somehow slightly sad little girl. Her tutu had not stood up to the years very well. Apparently original with the work, it sagged noticeably. The slippers and ribbons were faded, making the overall effect one of her having been once alive, and then somehow, her delicate, fragile youth having been made immortal by her metallic transformation. It was as if she'd sacrificed life for eternal youth.
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia has a bronze Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (perhaps even the same one I saw). She was the symbol of their exhibit, "Degas and America: The Early Collectors." This was perhaps the most extensive retrospective of Degas' work ever in the United States. Borrowed from museums and private collectors all over the country, the collection included his paintings too, of course. We see the influence of Ingres, and of Delacroix. We see the work of a man who loved women, a man who loved them as they were, unadorned, comfortable, often in seemingly unflattering circumstances, yet never do we see anything less than women of great strength as well as beauty. We see a surprisingly diverse artist; we see why one of his originals recently sold for $25 million; and we see why American collectors loved Degas, perhaps more than did the French. I don't know, maybe the French don't like surprises. The show was organised by subject matter, illustrating Degas' great versatility in all areas of art. There was a room featuring his figure studies, another with jockeys and race horses, another with dancers, another with women bathing, still another with his landscapes. His sculptures, drawings, paintings, and pastels form an amazing trail for one man to have followed. And around every corner we find his surprises - an amazing trail for us to follow too.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 March 2001