This winter, the National Gallery of Victoria presents the largest collection of works by Edgar Degas exhibited in Australia, with Degas – A New Vision. The exhibition, curated by Degas expert, and admirer, Henri Loyrette, former director of Musée du Louvre (2001-13) and Musée d’Orsay (1994-2001), has been developed with, and will continue to, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
This major retrospective invites viewers to examine Degas’ well known impressionist paintings alongside a vast display of drawings, etchings, sculptures, and photography, spanning decades and varied subject matter.
Most famously associated with oil paintings of ballerinas and the theatre, Edgar Degas’ arts practice and artistic development is displayed chronologically and thematically, with recurring themes throughout the exhibition including family, landscapes, and the female form.
Degas’ visits to family in both Italy and New Orleans, while short periods in his life, allowed him to adopt and explore new schools of art, including Venetian colouring, and backlighting. Each of these extended stays also provided the material Degas would continue to work on in Paris to create seminal pieces in his oeuvre; Family Portrait also called The Bellelli Family (1867) and A cotton office in New Orleans (1873).
These two works in particular highlight Degas’ self proclamation as a realist, as opposed to an impressionist. The Bellelli Family was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1867. A sombre, melancholic family portrait, the artwork shared with the audience the subjects’ tension and with its large size, the foreboding nature of family rift.
Degas’ commitment to realism, il faut etre de son temps, being true to one’s time, is observed throughout various mediums in his depiction of the female form. Degas only exhibited one sculpture in his lifetime, The little fourteen-year-old dancer, a wax sculpture of a young ballerina in real clothing. It shocked audiences at an exhibit in 1881 with its likeness to sculptures found in medical history museums rather than with fine art classics, and with his disregard for misrepresenting the real in favour of representing beauty.
Degas continued to challenge conceived notions of artistic integrity with studies of the female form in unflattering poses and performing daily tasks in baths and at the toilette, at dance rehearsals, and at work, including at brothels. Degas’ studies spanned drawings, etchings, paintings, and sculptures, originally in wax but posthumously cast in bronze.
While audiences might have found the postures or activities of the women too embarrassing to be depicted in art, Degas has composed vignettes that embody life during that time. In a café (The Absinthe drinker, 1875-76) again displays Degas’ interest in reality, yet was ill received, noted as disgusting, and booed out of exhibits. Degas’ captures the tense mood and the glassy-eyed pensivity of the woman behind the glass of absinthe, without apology or beautification.
Degas’ focus on the mundane, and rejection of the opulent, does not detract from the inherent beauty in his forms, in the application of paint or pastel, in the muted palettes in his portraits or the idiosyncratic palettes used in his later years. Degas’ interest in working life, or the bourgeois horse racing, ballet and theatre, all add to the richness of this retrospective, and to his biography.
Challenging convention and rejecting popular titles, yet exhibiting at the Salon and selling artworks to provide for his extended family, Degas’ is a complicated beauty that is so much more than ballerinas.
Degas – A New Vision
National Gallery of Victoria International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Exhibition continues to 18 September 2016
Admission fees apply
For more information, visit: www.ngv.vic.gov.au for details.
Image: Edgar Degas, In a cafe? (The Absinthe drinker) c. 1875–76 oil on canvas 92 x 68.5 cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 1984) © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Martine Beck-Coppola
Review: Jasmin Bardel