Sunday, March 8, 2015

Revisiting Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas: the private Impressionist at the Newcomb Art Gallery on the Uptown Tulane Campus  provides a glimpse into a less known scope of Degas' practice through its display of "Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle". The famous sculptor and painter produced also a substantial body of work on paper. The drawings, prints, photographs and related pieces from the artist and his peers on view for the exhibition, were gathered by Robert Flynn Johnson over a forty-year period for his collection.

The visit appears daunting at first sight due to the voluminous material on display, its predominant black and white colors and the monotonous presentation along the walls. However, themes emerge as one walks through: Marie Cassatt at the entrance, or in the main gallery Edouard Manet, portraits of family and friends, studies after Old Masters or Classical sculptures also horses in one of the adjacent room and works from contemporaries in the other. Degas, the photographer, is well represented with a collection of shots made by the Master which contributes greatly to the worthwhile visit. So does the display of works on paper from peers like Ingres, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, ... or less known artists, spread within the show. Detailed wall texts are found next to each work and hand-outs are available for more information, including a glossary of graphic art terms. Etching, aquatint, drypoint, lithographs, first impression,..., the technicalities surrounding works on paper, prints in particular can be confusing but transform the exhibition into a didactic experience for an amateur like me. For example, one can learn about monoprints and monotypes which fell in disfavor after the sixteenth century. They are represented by three works by Degas who was introduced to the technique by Ludovic Lepic: Les Deux Arbres, ca.1878, Bust of a Woman, ca. 1876 and Heads of a Man and a Woman, ca. 1877-78. Most of the prints however are impressions from cancelled plates, made posthumously by Degas' dealer which means without the artist approval. Degas sold his cancelled plates to AmbroiseVollard as explained on page 40 of the book published at the occasion of the exhibition: "Degas' cancellation lines were clearly visible but done so as not to deface the compositions", "Degas himself rarely published or sold any of his work in the medium during his lifetime.". The assumption is that Degas intended to have further editions of the cancelled plates made after his death, which prompted Gary Arseneau to raise some polemic about the exhibition in his blog. The lonely sculpture Head, Study of the Portrait of Mademoiselle S. adds up to the controversy surrounding posthumous sculptures from Degas and appears irrelevant in an exhibition of works on paper. Likely the illustrations from Maurice Potin "after Degas" are subject to further scrutiny after reading the book: "Degas never exhibited the works in his lifetime", " Degas sold them... surely knowing that the dealer intended to use them as illustrations for further publication."...maybe.
The exhibition is a great venue to discover Degas, the photographer, and imagine the artist "at work" while looking at studies made in preparation for his paintings and sculptures. It shows Degas experimenting, presents his circle of friends and acquaintances, and brings up technical issues of interest to the collectors and viewers.
Degas was reluctant to be labeled an impressionist and preferred to be called a realist or independent, he may not approve of the exhibition's title and may also have some reservations about the content.
But who can tell?

photographs by the author:

"Manet Seated, Turned to the Right", ca. 1864-1865, Edgar Degas
view of the exhibition

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