“I look like a dog,” Edgar Degas remarked of a pastel self-portrait made when he was in his early 60s, a century ago. Hunched forward in a coarse painter’s smock, he peers forlornly at us, his tired and damaged eyes rimmed with vermilion. What appears, at first glance, to be a genie rising from his soft brown cap turns out, on closer inspection, to be the sinuous arm and towel, in white chalk, of one of Degas’ own bathers, a pastel within a pastel. For Degas, who had forsworn self-portraiture for 30 years, this double image has the weight of allegory: The aging and celibate artist has purchased a score of creative years at the price of physical collapse.
The portrait captures a fraught moment in Degas’ career, when he had lost interest in the witty chronicle of modern life he’d pursued with such brilliance for 20 years–the parade of shopgirls and laundresses and jockeys and prostitutes that had made him famous. The last of the impressionist exhibitions, in which Degas had played so central a role, was held in 1886; afterward, he found himself increasingly isolated as well. “I am quickly sliding downhill,” he confided to an acquaintance at the time, “rolling I know not where, wrapped up in lots of bad pastels as if in so much packing paper.”
It turned out to be a long hill. Degas lived until 1917, when–blind, brittle, and beleaguered–he died at 82. The surprising premise of the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago is that much of Degas’ most challenging and inventive work dates from the 1890s and the first years of this century. Printed in bold letters at the entrance of the show is a startling claim by Degas’ fellow painter Auguste Renoir: “If Degas had died at 50, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more; it is after his 50th year that his work broadened out and that he really becomes Degas.”
While the first part of Renoir’s assertion is preposterous (as anyone can see who peruses the dozen or so early works, culled from the Art Institute’s own spectacular collection of over 90 pieces by Degas, that serve as an appetizer for the exhibition), the show makes a convincing case for the vitality of Degas’ late work. Holed up in his squalid attic studio in Montmartre (models complained of the dust, but Degas believed that sweeping just moved the dust around), Degas narrowed his subject matter to a few recurrent motifs–women bathing, having their hair combed, and dancing–while at the same time experimenting with a remarkable range of techniques and media (photography, tracing paper, lurid color combinations). Many of his forays “beyond impressionism,” as the curators point out, anticipate some of the titans of 20th-century art.
Amorbid undertow pervades the early rooms of the exhibition–apparent in the blank gaze, for instance, of Hélène Rouart in Her Father’s Study (c. 1893-’98), one of Degas’ last and finest portraits. Draped over an empty chair, the subject’s expressive hands could be playing the piano or summoning up the ghost of her recently deceased father, whose stacks of papers and Egyptian funerary art hem her in. A frieze of four dancers (c. 1893-’98) with gray-white bodies, their faces daubed with green and orange, look like they’ve just stepped out of a grave–or a badly colorized film. And indeed, there’s something almost cinematic in the similar poses of the dancers as they adjust their shoes, like Eadweard Muybridge’s freeze frames of bodies in motion, with which Degas was familiar.
Those green and orange faces presage Degas’ growing interest in bright color in his later work. Always curious about technological innovation, Degas may have been excited by the new colors made available by the chemical industry at century’s end. Alternatively, the bold hues might have resulted from Degas’ wretched eyesight (those oranges may not have looked so bright to him), which forced him to wear tinted glasses and keep his brown-walled studio (reproduced in the Art Institute’s brown walls) in a spectral gloom.
In any case, little that has come before prepares the viewer for the visual shock of the outsized Combing the Hair (c. 1892-’96). The gestures of the two women, an attendant combing the long coil of her mistress’s hair, have a ritualized simplicity. A single brushstroke enlarges the reclining woman’s stomach, indicating her pregnancy. The whole composition is rendered in pulsating shades of red. It seems fitting that this remarkable painting was owned for a time by Henri Matisse, who experimented with similar monochromatic harmonies. Those amniotic reds recur in the wrenched body of the nude figure in After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (c. 1894-’96). Degas based the composition, so suggestive of pain and isolation, on one of his own photographs, a medium in which he’d begun to experiment around 1895.
Degas was drawn to other methods besides photography for recycling his images, using tracing paper to multiply a drawing, then overlaying the copies with different colors to produce a range of emotional variants. A particularly bizarre transformation occurred when he made a charcoal copy of one of his women having her hair combed. He rotated the image 90 degrees, overlaid it with vigorous layers of pastel, and produced a perfectly convincing landscape, Steep Coast (c. 1890-’92). The woman’s cascading hair becomes a cliff plummeting to the ocean below, while her breasts and upraised knees are hills. The riddling result, judging from the “Ah”s and “Oh, yeah!”s of the crowd, is as satisfying as the “hidden pictures” from a Highlights magazine in the dentist’s office. What the picture “means”–a dubious equation of woman and nature? the virgin land?–is a further enigma.
In focusing the show almost entirely on technique, the organizers of “Degas: Beyond Impressionism” have followed the lead of Degas himself, who steadily eliminated from his work any reference to contemporary life, preferring an artificial world of studio props and pliable models. “There is something artificial even about this heart of mine,” he wrote in 1886. “The dancers have sewn it into a pink satin bag, a slightly faded satin, like their ballet slippers.” One is lulled into thinking that these contorted bathers are mere exercises in the handling of pastel, and not the work of, in the poet Paul Valéry’s words, “a supremely cruel authority on female contours and poses.” A firestorm of feminist controversy already surrounds some of these works–one side contends that these are refreshingly de-idealized nudes, the other side responds that the unusual poses and aggressive use of pastel are further degradations of women–but you wouldn’t know it from the placid audio tour, or from the printed “exhibition guide” that replaces the usual wall panels.
More surprisingly, there is not a single mention of the most important public event for Degas during the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair, when Degas didn’t just look like a dog but behaved like one, cutting off Jewish friends of long standing and adamantly insisting (along with Paul Cézanne and Renoir) on the guilt of the Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason. One must turn to the informative catalog, by guest curator Richard Kendall, to learn something of this unsavory episode in Degas’ life, a further lesson that avant-garde art and retrograde politics often coexist. Degas’ very retreat from contemporary life owes something to his disgust with French society as he found it.
Next year, the Art Institute will try for an impressionist hat trick, as they add a Renoir show to the successes of last year’s Monet extravaganza and this year’s subtler and more demanding Degas. As boating parties replace ballerinas on the T-shirts and umbrellas for sale along Michigan Avenue, the exhibition organizers shouldn’t shy away from social context and controversy. They can afford to risk a bit more grit in the presentation.
N.B.: The preceding images are not from “Degas: Beyond Impressionism” (online reproduction of art from the Degas exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago is forbidden. The images reproduced here are from Art Resource, N.Y.).