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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Shared Joys of Dance
Edgar Degas loved the dance. Over his long lifetime
he loved it in its every aspect and recorded his devotion in hundreds
of heart-stopping drawings, paintings, and sculptures. His love, in
turn, engendered a vision and a devotion to the dance among the many
who saw his pictures. In the 1930s, when my mother was an art student
in London, Degas was the sine qua non of figure drawing. As
I toured the big new exhibition, "Degas and the Dance," at
the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I began to suspect that Degas’ evocative
pastels of dancers at work and at rest were the likely reason my mother,
a non-dancer, brought me into the ballet studio at age five.
"Degas and the Dance," which opened in Philadelphia on February
12 and remains on view through May 11, is a cooperative venture that
was seen at the Detroit Institute of the Arts beginning last fall.
Philadelphia has taken up this blockbuster show with characteristic
gusto. The Pennsylvania Ballet has commissioned a new work in its
honor, the museum hosts jazz evenings every Friday at "Cafe Degas,"
and special weekend hotel and museum packages are offered. (See the
museum website at www.philamuseum.org.)
The exhibition features more than 140 individual works, but opens,
tantalizingly, with just two. The entry room contains a single pink
pointe shoe, a 19th-century silk ballet slipper found in Degas’
studio after his death. Paired with this, and holding pride of place,
is the Philadelphia Museum’s own painting "The Ballet Class"
(1878-80), a classroom scene of young students dominated by the frumpy
figure of a patient stage mother reading her newspaper.
"Degas and the Dance" is curated by Richard Kendall, an independent
art historian who has specialized in aspects of Degas’ work, and dance
historian Jill DeVonyar. The British-trained Kendall, now associated
with the Clark Art Institute, made his mark on Degas studies in the
late 1980s with his exhibition, "Degas: Images of Women,"
shown at the Liverpool Tate. This was followed in 1991 by the book
"Dealing With Degas," co-edited with Griselda Pollock, composed
of essays on issues of feminism and art history and the politics of
Kendall and DeVonyar, who led the press a tour of the exhibition,
make an unlikely, but clearly complementary pair. Kendall, in corduroy
trousers and a gray fleece, is almost stereotypically disheveled and
frank. The young DeVonyar, in silver tunic and black slacks, carries
herself like the dancer she was. She earned her B.A. in art history
at SUNY Purchase in 1990 and also studied at Columbia.
From the curators we learned that much of the received wisdom surrounding
Degas oeuvre is outdated or just plain wrong. Together the
curators have created a sequence for the show that tells a more up-to-date
story about Degas and his world. Dancers make up more than 50 percent
of Degas’ abundant artistic output — at least 600 individual works.
Beyond the small entry room, the big gallery spaces open up and proclaim
the show’s themes: "The Private World of the Dance," "Degas
as Portraitist," "The Classroom," "On Stage,"
"In the Wings," "The Movements of the Greeks," and
a phenomenal room of late works presented under the title, "Orgies
of Color." A complimentary audio tour (which I didn’t hear) is
included with admission.
First and foremost, curators Kendall and DeVonyar have uncovered new
evidence that emphasizes and extends Degas’ attachment to the Paris
Opera, rooting it in the earliest years of his career and pushing
it into the late decades of his life. Their 300-page illustrated catalog
accompanies the show but also stands independently of it. As Kendall
explains, the compendium of research is designed to last. It offers
a thoroughgoing examination of Degas’ relationship with dance and
the dance world of the Paris Opera ballet in the second half of the
Born in 1834, Degas came from an aristocratic family
(formerly known as De Gas). His father was a banker, but upon his
father’s death in the 1870s, the family was in debt and Degas found
himself in the socially ambiguous position of having to work for a
living. Contrary to prevailing notions, he was obliged to support
himself and settle family debts through his work as a painter.
The "painter of dancers," as Degas became known early in his
career, was an artist of the modern urban experience. The show’s first
themed room, "The Private World of the Dancer," is one of
the best. And as Kendall describes it, this is no idealized fantasy
but "a story about human beings working in the dance world."
In this first room of drawings and pastels of individual dancers,
often exhausted or lost in thought, we see how Degas’ brilliant figure
drawing was built from classical training. Working in the studio,
from sketches and from models, he manipulated his drawing at will
in the service of realism, creating illusions of immediacy, even of
awkwardness. Technically, he was an innovator. He invented the monotype,
worked wonders in pastel, and gave some of his oils the scrumbled
surface of pastel. Kendall gets it right when he calls him "a
technically promiscuous artist."
As I followed this expansive show from one gallery to the next, I
was surprised to discover one particularly lively dancing figure or
another reappear in paintings many years after its first appearance.
Like a frugal cook, Degas preserved his favorite figures to insert
in his subsequent meditations on the dance, in a seemingly tireless
drive to "get it right."
The exhibition immerses us in this community of working women who
share their days, share space, and their common enterprise — performance.
We meet stage mothers who shepherd their daughters to classes, rehearsals,
and into suitably profitable liaisons. The only men we encounter are
dance masters at work and the shadowy presence of the opera habitues.
Degas’ paintings, rife with dynamic points of view, tension, and telling
contemporary detail, speak of the modernity of Parisian life in the
late-19th century. The show’s curators describe the artist’s project
as the "radical reinvention of current visual modes and conventions."
Included in the show is Degas’ widely exhibited but still galvanizing
"Little Dancer, Aged 14," made of bronze but embellished with
a cotton skirt and faded satin hair ribbon. The two-thirds life-size
statuette was created in 1879 and exhibited in its original wax form
in 1881 in the sixth Impressionist exhibition. After his death it
was among the many wax sculptures cast in bronze by Degas’ heirs,
possibly to settle debts. Because more than 25 posthumous casts of
the work exist — including one in London, one in the collection
of the Philadelphia Museum, and another at the Met — many of us
feel as if we grew up with this "Little Dancer." The curators
also take pains to chronicle the story of the work’s model, the young
dance student Marie van Goethem.
Girls began training to work in the ballet at age six or seven, when
they were known as "petits rats." Their training and rehearsals
took place six days a week. Often required to arrive early and leave
late at night after a performance, they received little or no other
schooling. As Theophile Gautier remarked in 1840: "They can’t
tell the difference between a beetroot and an oak tree; they only
see trees that are painted, unlucky things!"
The Paris Opera, where almost all these paintings, drawings, and pastels
are set, was home of the national ballet and the national opera, twin
companies that appeared together in elaborate stage productions. These
renowned shows were described by a British contemporary journalist
as the site of "scenic and terpsichorean splendours." During
the years that Degas was most actively involved in the subject —
the 1870s and 1880s — the Opera employed 7,000 people and maintained
a permanent corps de ballet of 200 dancers. In addition to the shared
productions, full-length ballets such as "La Source," "La
Maschera," and "Coppelia" also premiered at the Paris
Research by the curators, particularly into the history of the dance
and its social context, has established information about the individual
dancers whom Degas befriended and the actual productions he saw or
watched take form. Degas was deeply musical and an admirer of the
opera. The curators identify for us portraits of the artist’s friends
that appear in his paintings among the spectators and pit orchestra
musicians. Degas attended the opera three or four times a week, and
by examining the opera attendance records, the curators tell us that
he saw Gounod’s Faust 11 times, Verdi’s "Rigoletto" 15 times,
and Reyer’s "Sigurd" an incredible 37 times.
Over Degas’ lifetime, the opera occupied two very different
theaters. The first, on the rue Le Peletier, was known as the birthplace
of the Romantic ballet, but had already been deemed obsolete when
it burned in 1873. In 1885 it was replaced by the still impressive
Palais Garnier, true to its name, a palace of gilt, mirrors, and conspicuous
display. However, as the curators explain here, Degas never really
took to the "new" opera, and throughout his life, set most
of his stage and rehearsal scenes amid the architecture of the long-lost
rue Le Peletier.
Among the special features of both opera houses, and raised to glittering
heights at the 1875 Palais Garnier, was the Foyer de la danse, a glittering
private room where dancers practiced and rubbed shoulders with lovers
and admirers before, during, and after the performance.
Most significant among these back-stage denizens in the Foyer were
the abonnes, members of the exclusive — and exclusively
male — group of season subscribers. For a significant investment
(akin to a country club membership), the subscription gave these men,
dressed always in formal black tailcoat and top hat, access to the
backstage areas of the theater and hence to the dancers. They often
appear in these paintings, at the margins — anonymous dark forms
observing and influencing the motion of the flocks of tulle-clad dancers.
We learn from the show’s catalog that from 1885 to 1892 Degas had
an abonne’s opera subscription for three nights a week.
Whether or not the girls and women of the Paris Opera engaged in prostitution
remains a thorny question. Kendall accepts that most stage mothers
hoped for a supportive match; but dancers also married other opera
workers. The notion that the dancers were low-born and sexually available
is one that was actually cultivated in the press of the day, perhaps
as a defense against these women’s entrepreneurial instincts.
Degas himself was an artist who seems to have been more interested
in Paris’ lively and insatiable sex trade than he was in having sex.
Contemporary viewers (and buyers) would have recognized the subjects
of his compelling portraits of laundresses and shopgirls as being
available for casual prostitution. And the sites of so many of his
works were, according to art historian Eunice Lipton, "all part
of the notorious sexual market-place of the city." Degas’ powerful
monotype series of scenes inside a Paris brothel was not shown publicly
during his lifetime.
"Degas and the Dance" includes a panoply of Degas’ small sculptures,
most created as studies for his paintings during in the 1800s. At
the time of his death, more than 80 wax sculptures of dancers, bathers,
and horses were found in his studio. In 1918 his heirs commissioned
Adrien Hebrard to reproduce 73 of the waxes in bronze in a casting
process designed to save the originals. When these bronzes were exhibited
in 1921, Mary Cassatt wrote: "I believe he will live to be greater
as a sculptor than as a painter." Her point is no less true today.
Fleshing out the context of Degas’ dancers are such items as a first
edition of the Italian dance instructor Carlo Blasis’s 1820 "Elementary
treatise upon the theory and practice of the art of dancing" and
a series of monotypes Degas made (but which were not used) as illustrations
for the backstage ballet novel "La Famille Cardinal."
This final room of the exhibition holds works dating from Degas’ last
productive years, from 1890 to 1905 (he died in 1917). It is titled
"Orgies of Color," an expression that Degas used in 1899 when
he invited a friend and fellow artist to look at his most recent work.
This gallery — which today we would probably call a "riot
of color" — constitutes the show’s crowning touch. Among its
glories is a large pastel of Russian dancers, its colors, we are told,
inspired by the Louvre’s 16th-century Venetian paintings and the innovations
of such contemporaries as Cezanne and Gaugin. In a final surprising
argument, made more fully in the catalog, Kendall suggests that Matisse’s
well-known and well-loved "Dance" of 1909 (in the collection
of the Museum of Modern Art) may have been the younger artist’s homage
to the French master, Edgar Degas.
Such homage is well-deserved. A mother, whether or not she’s an artist,
can try nudging her children in all sorts of directions; she never
knows where it might lead. I never imagined I would thank Degas for
having been nudged in such a rewarding one.
— Nicole Plett
Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, 215-763-8100.
$20; $17 seniors & youth; $10 child. Complimentary audio tour. For
tickets by phone, call 215-235-SHOW; or go to www.philamuseum.org.
Show continues through Sunday, May 11.
Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, 215-684-7506. Jazz
by the Janet Barron trio, cash bar, wines and appetizers, and tours
of "Degas and the Dance." $10 museum admission. Friday
nights, February 21 to May 9, beginning at 5 p.m.
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