The Edgar Degas exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria is almost at an end. I have been thinking about it a bit, because while I was excited to attend, I didn’t connect as I have to other ‘blockbuster’ exhibits. I wondered if it was me or Degas.
Degas could be seen as a kind of proto-ethnographer, depicting in detail the private worlds of ballet dancers, everyday women and also, horses and horse racing. That may do the ‘art’ in his works an injustice, even as it highlights his observational skills. His dancers and nudes are going about their business of living. They look like candid ‘shots’. They aren’t ‘sexy’ even if they are in various stages of undress. That’s not to say they aren’t posing, or that Degas is not watching. Perhaps we are too used to this, with our Instagrams and FBs. Candid is no big deal. Observing a moment in time, and rendering it from memory might be more of a thing, but that’s the process, not the product.
The Romantic and Impressionist artists and poets sank into their despair by way of a kind of luxuriant antique drama, especially when they were sick and starving. Degas is not Romantic and not an Impressionist. He shows the sadness of the real without the cloak of myth. He paints the effect of absinthe on its drinkers, not through a fog of it.
Maybe I don’t want real as viewed by some man more than a hundred years ago?
The work that most caught my attention was his statue of the ballerina in her dress, but again, it wasn’t the piece itself, but her story and Degas’ too. She was 14 when she was murdered as a child prostitute and ballerina. She was also Degas’ first and last public exhibition of his sculpture such was the outcry.
Perhaps there is something in his pictures that makes the viewer feel complicit? Even with the most famous paintings, seeing them in situ, as small and un-presupposing objects, doesn’t reduce them as much as it reduces the viewer?
He studied his subjects carefully, often repetitively, but for all the ballet and bouquets there is an underworld quality to his the work. It is social commentary. His subjects are illuminated in the footlights and he (and we with him) are in the dark.
Degas’ paintings, sculptures and drawings are work, not poetry, not impressions; they demand serious consideration as art and as documents of a world where a man could make enough money to support his family, by depicting those would likely never possess the means nor power to achieve economic independence nor social mobility. I don’t know, after seeing all this, what to think of that.