Visual Art

Edgar Degas’ early emphasis on the line in masterful renditions of nudes, dancers and horses gave way as his sight faltered, leading to his most interesting paintings. By Patrick Hartigan.

‘Degas: A New Vision’ at the NGV

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It was while viewing an exhibition of Claude Monet’s water lily paintings in 1877 that Edgar Degas made the famous pronouncement. “Let me get out of here,” he said. “Those reflections in the water hurt my eyes.”

By that time Degas, who was born in 1834, was already suffering from retinopathy, a condition that made his eyes especially sensitive to light, that would see him nearly blind in his final years. This leading member of the Impressionists, whose best landscapes he inhabited with jockeys on horses, was destined for pursuits far more interior – what he called “the human animal preoccupied with itself”. Degas: A New Vision, showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until September 18, presents a mass of work demonstrating Degas’ eye and line for a nature peculiarly human.

Degas’ submission to the Impressionist exhibition in 1886 – a collection of pictures loosely titled a “series of women bathing, washing, drying, towelling, combing their hair” – clarifies this artist’s coming of age precisely as photography did. A year later, the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge published his stop-motion photographic series Animal Locomotion (1887), a set of sequences capturing likewise everyday actions and gestures of animals and humans: Woman sitting in chair, drying her feet; Woman stepping from tub, sitting down in chair, drying her feet; Woman standing, putting on dress over head, and so on. Muybridge’s work was well known to Degas.

There was plenty of suspicion over these developments in so-called realism. The sculptor Rodin, with a sentiment I find myself wanting to share, pointed out that: “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.” But Degas lapped up these new findings, most famously the way a horse’s legs lift off the ground while running. Photographer and artist were both intent on bringing attention to the motions and moments missed by the human eye and previously considered inconsequential to artistic ideals.

While painting and photography entered a kind of twirling embrace in the latter half of the 19th century, it’s more interesting the way painting was released and thrust forward. Outperformed – superficially, at least – painters became intent on unravelling the illusion of external realities by bringing greater awareness to a reality that was concretely and uniquely theirs. The implication of the audience was a kind of catchphrase for this: the depiction of the back of spectators’ heads in The Ballet scene from Meyerbeer’s opera Robert the Devil (1876) forces the viewer to acknowledge themselves viewing, while The dance class (c. 1873) and The rehearsal (c. 1874) take us into moments and places prior to the immaculately staged drama of illusionistic painting.

Degas saw his paintings as showing the world “as if you were looking through a keyhole”, and his voyeurism was at least in part symptomatic of history: the drawings and paintings of women disrobing – rather than merely nude – related to a broader celebration of the open button, the glimpse of skin beyond the garment of paint.

Degas’ friend and chief rival, Édouard Manet, brought the keenest awareness to the fabric and inner workings of paintings, while Degas was one of the artists who most convincingly broke down the separation, a largely psychological one, between painting and drawing. Degas’ heroes were the French painters Delacroix and Ingres, two artists he ceaselessly studied while also amassing large collections of their work. Delacroix, the Romantic painter whose tempestuous brushstrokes can be seen as having swooshed Degas’ generation into action, disliked excessive drawing and I find myself appreciating Manet’s point that “there are no lines in nature” when looking at some of Degas’ very thick, sometimes breathless outlines. The persistence of Degas’ line was in part the result of a dispassionate practice of tracing and reusing drawings. Degas was more receptive to the advice of Ingres who, on the occasion the two met, told him to “draw lines, young man, many lines”. Eventually these lines were drawn in stone; on his tombstone at Montmartre he requested as an epitaph: “He liked drawing very much.”

The heavy reliance on line connected Degas to his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, but the temperamental differences between these two artists were telling. It was interesting to recall a drawing by van Gogh as I walked through this exhibition, a postcard of which is stuck on my fridge, a furiously chiselled, fully clothed peasant bending over a pitchfork, called Woman digging potatoes (1885). The image flashed into my mind while taking in Degas’ charcoal and pastel drawing of a Woman bending over, viewed from behind (1900) and his penchant for female and horse rumps more generally. Van Gogh, also a regular visitor to brothels, and a constantly disturbed and acutely fallible character working from and very much at the mercy of life, despised Degas’ discipline and restraint.

Van Gogh penned his incredulity to his brother, Theo, the dealer who was then exhibiting Degas’ work, at first self-aggrandising – “he [Degas] looks on while the human animals, stronger than himself, get excited and fuck” – before conceding that in actuality “painting and fucking are not compatible”. Van Gogh understood that Degas’ celibacy was the necessary ingredient in his work and it’s easy to see why he might have envied Degas’ restraint when viewing the selection of monotypes depicting bordello scenes in this exhibition.

It was across these tiny metal plates that Degas produced some of his most varied and lascivious terrains. On the bed (1878-79), depicting a sex worker sitting spread-eagled on a mattress, finds power in its mid-tones, the line playing only a very selective and cheeky role. Elsewhere, the act of undressing the inky plate for Getting dressed (1880-85) results in a light more tenderly caressing of the hanging fruit of a breast than can be found anywhere else in the exhibition.

As with the later pastels, the monotypes seem to contradict Degas’ claim that “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine”. Degas drew and painted with a passion for factual correctness, the same subjects again and again, but his deteriorating eyesight disrupted any chance of a generalised or dully scientific outcome. The collection of works in this exhibition makes the decline in vision clear while revealing the benefits Degas’ disease inflicted on his work.

The late pastels show nature bursting through the containment wall of Degas’ line: no longer able to clearly register figures and objects in relief, thereby relying on feeling as much as knowledge and skill, the artist produced what he referred to as his “orgies of colour”. Woman seated on the edge of a bath sponging her neck (1880-95) is a veritable bacchanalia, the excavated background of ochre oranges and turquoise blue dissolving Degas’ cherished line while speaking directly to his life: interiority and decorum before a backdrop of rude earth and riotous fucking. While this exhibition makes clear that there was no decisive climax in Degas’ work – he continued working hard, eventually extending his hands and his semi-shot eyes to sculpture and photography – the breaking down of that insistent, somewhat nature-defying line in later years undoubtedly led to his most exquisite and beautiful works.


1 . Arts Diary

BALLET Nijinsky

Arts Centre, Melbourne, until September 17

CABARET Jennifer Kingwell: The Glitter and Doom Salon

The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, September 13-18

VISUAL ART John Olsen: The You Beaut Country

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, September 16-February 12, 2017

LITERATURE St Albans Writers’ Festival

Various venues, St Albans, NSW, September 16-18

CULTURE A History of the World in 100 Objects

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until January 20, 2017

CINEMA Sydney Underground Film Festival

The Factory Theatre, Sydney, September 15-18

MUSICAL My Fair Lady

Sydney Opera House, until November 4

Last chance

VISUAL ART Esther Stewart: How to Decorate a Dump

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until September 11

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2016 as "Degas view".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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