Beyond Impressionism

December 2, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: He was a key impressionist who captured modest moments of late 19th century Paris, yet, frequented the haunts of the aristocracy, an inspiration to modern artists, who loved this music of Gluck’s and spent a lifetime emulating the classics.

Edgar Degas, well born, well heeled, and subject of a show that’s traveled from London to Chicago’s Art Institute: “Degas: Beyond Impressionism.” His father, a merchant and banker, supported his self-taught son as an amateur painter, but the family firm went bust when the artist was in his 40’s.

Degas began to live off his work, and by the 1880’s, he and his dancers were very well known. But the Impressionist phase of his art was coming to an end. And that’s where this show begins–with Degas in his early 50’s. Curator Douglas Druick. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK, Curator, Art Institute of Chicago: He had a mid-life crisis. He didn’t know what he wanted to do next, because here he’d established his reputation, there was a demand for his art, he was known as Degas, the painter of the dancers, and he wrote to a friend, “I think I’ve lost my way.”

And he wrote to another, he said, “I feel like I’m sliding down the slope, wrapped in bad pastels like packing paper.” So clearly the question was, what did he do for a second act? 

PAUL SOLMAN: To Druick the traditional answer has become a myth, to Degas simply dried up. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: The myth is Degas later in life is a disabled, old man, who tries to do what he had done as a young man and doesn’t do it as well. 

PAUL SOLMAN: And the reality is? 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: The reality is he changed his mind, wanted to go in new directions, wanted to pioneer in art, that was different from what he had done before, and did it. 

PAUL SOLMAN: Thus, Degas went beyond Impressionism, plunging forward into color, drawing, and painting in and of themselves. “My art. What can you say about it,” Degas once wrote. “Do you think you can explain the merits of the picture to those who do not see them? But among people who understand, words are not necessary.” To us, however, words were necessary, and so we asked Douglas Druick to utter a few, starting early in Degas’ career. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: The picture behind me here is a quintessential Impressionist picture by Degas showing dancers on stage in the middle of performance. We see them from a rather strange point of view. It’s as if we’re in one of the boxes right beside the stage.

A different phase–one of them is smiling, maybe catching the eye–to describe the scene, the different tutus of the ballet dancers, where he even describes, for example, the brace on the hand of the one, the lower right– 

PAUL SOLMAN: Druick’s terms, this is Degas at the end of Act 1, the artist’s story. Act II begins with the transition to his late work. There are still narrative elements in this painting. Mysteriously, the woman on the right, for instance, looks–there’s that black shadow– 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: The figure in the top hat, he is one of–to the opera who had the privilege of coming back stage and meeting the young dancers and recruiting girlfriends, and this is the type of modern subject matter that Degas had been doing for years. 

PAUL SOLMAN: Pictures like this had earned Degas his reputation as a dispassionate, even cruel observer. But to Druick, they also showed Degas moving away from storytelling. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: The faces of the dancers are only lightly sketched in. Even though he is recording what the dancers are wearing, look at the fact that the color of the floor is the same color as the dancers, so all of a sudden they started thinking more in terms of color and overall color. 

PAUL SOLMAN: That one is very narrative. This one is still kind of narrative. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: And in this last one, which we’ll see here, Degas squeezes out the narrative. 

PAUL SOLMAN: You can see that the composition is basically the same, but now the mystery figures on the right have been removed. Narrative details have given way to purely esthetic concerns. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: Degas tends to a scene that he’s inviting us to eavesdrop on and to witness, he’s drawing attention to the paint, and he does this in the background by actually applying the paint with his fingers, so that he creates a decorative pattern which now looks so much like scenery behind the stage, but he’s drawing attention to the way this picture is made, and we’ll see this process, this move from telling a story to making a picture in a way about picture making as we move into the next room and see a very famous picture of dancers–from the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

PAUL SOLMAN: What strikes Druick about this painting is simply the color, starting with the green glow which diffuses it. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: And look at that blush of green that is on the face of the dancer second from the left, and the dancer beside her has that green and then has this wonderfully vibrant and carrot orange hair.

These are decisions that are made not because the dancer has orange hair, or the dancer second from the right–from the left is getting ill. It’s because he wants to use green, and he wants to use orange. He’s using color in a way which is now divorced from any sort of descriptive purpose and used in and of itself, for itself. 

PAUL SOLMAN: Druick also notes that this isn’t really a tableau of different dancers but one model in different positions. And this leads us to the show’s main visual theme–not the capturing of reality but the creation of it. Here, Degas perfects one pose, then another pose, then yet a third. Finally, he puts them all together, into a scene that never was until he constructed it.

Here, Degas narrows even further. He works on one model, on one pose, altering and adjusting. It is essential to do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times, Degas wrote. “Nothing in art must seem to be chance, not even movement.” As the show makes clear, Degas often began with a sculpture. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: What Degas would do is he would invite the model to the studio, he would make the statuette, and then what he would do after the model left is the statuette could function as the model any time he needed the model, so in the drawing that we see down there, we see that the figure at the left has basically been based on this sculpture. 

PAUL SOLMAN: Degas then traced this drawing so that he could make an entirely new pastel. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: He got to a certain point, and he decided this composition needs more space, it needs more air. He brings it to his framer. The framer adds another piece of paper onto the bottom of it, then Degas works it over, and he doesn’t mind if you see the joint–he simply wants to extend the composition, and then you can see he signed it here. 

PAUL SOLMAN: What comes next? 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: He’s finished with that work. He’s not finished with the subject. He turns to the sculpture. But also the surface is different. There’s much more texture to it than these heavy sort of textures of the skirt, and then he moves from this into the pastel that you see to the right here in which those same textures used in this two-dimensional representation, in this really wild object, which is now–now we’ve really moved into the 20th century, and there’s an abstraction in the faces and the type of boldness in the handling which we didn’t even seen in the earlier pastel. 

PAUL SOLMAN: The curator, in other words, is excited by connecting the late Degas and abstract modern art. Some viewers, however, were less enthusiastic. 

SPOKESMAN: I was hoping he might take a little more profound subject and might branch out–but these ballet, they’re lovely, but it’s not going to stir the heart. Does it stir your heart? 

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, my soul perhaps. 

SPOKESMAN: That’s more important. 

PAUL SOLMAN: Our priest is actually echoing a longtime criticism of Degas. The artist’s contemporary, realist novelist Emil Zola wrote of those who like Monsieur Degas are imprisoned by their specialties.

A reviewer of his work in 1880 wrote, “Monsieur Degas has made some charming pictures. Why not stop when the subject is exhausted?” And talk about reworking an image. Rotate this Degas charcoal sketch 90 degrees, and here’s the same woman, surrealistically hidden in the hillside.

Note her cascading hair, her face, breasts, stomachs, groin, and thighs. This hardly seems like the late Degas of myth, artistically, if you’ll pardon the expression, over the hill, not to crowds in Chicago anyway. For curator Druick, however, the masterpieces of Degas, “Beyond Impressionism,” are unfinished studies in the psychology of color. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: Some people look at this picture and say, ah, joy. More people, I think, see the suggestion of pain, and it’s not just the pain of a woman with knots in their hair having them removed. It’s this overlay on the scene of hair combing with this very passionate red. 

PAUL SOLMAN: Another of Druick’s favorites–this, almost impossible, pose, which Degas persuaded a model to assume, actually photographed to work from. It reminds some observers of the feminist knock on Degas as voyeur and sometimes manipulator, with a hint of violence. 

DOUGLAS DRUICK: These pictures are sometimes disturbing, and they’re often very complex. Different feminists have read these pictures different ways. Some have found Degas tender and respectful of the woman in the privacy of her toilette. Others have found it exploitative. I think the power of these works is what’s disquieting and different people will come to different conclusions. 

PAUL SOLMAN: The last room in the show. In Paris, Degas must have seen a troupe of Russian dancers perform. Years later, as the 19th century was ending, he transplanted them in an open field, losing his eyesight, living alone, obsessive as ever, Degas reveled in the gestures, the abandon–“orgies of color,” he called them–and in a sense, they were to be his final dance.

But instead of the Impressionist chronicler of old, Edgar Degas was now the choreographer of visions entirely his own.