The most casual art lovers probably know Degas as the painter and sculptor of dancers who was aligned with the early Impressionists. Yet, even the most ardent Degas aficionados probably have only limited knowledge of Degas the photographer, Degas the printmaker, a Degas who verged into the abstract and especially of Degas who pointed the way to Modernism. With the exhibition Degas: A New Vision, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston intends to introduce the world to this Degas we never knew.
A New Vision brings together some 200 Degas works from public and private collections that have never been seen together in this way and will likely never be again. To better understand this new perspective on Degas, I recently attended a preview tour guided by the exhibition’s organizing curator Henri Loyrette, former director of the Louvre, and co-curator, the MFAH’s director, Gary Tinterow. Both Loyrette and Tinterow organized the last major Degas retrospective 33 years ago.
Why were both men so eager to return to Degas decades later?
“More than our personal interest in this artist, he is a figure who commands our respect and attention because of his constant search for something new, his constant innovation and exploration of new media and modes of expression from printmaking, etching, painting to photography and sculpture. He worked in all the media that were available to him at that time and he mixed those media and exploration in a way that was completely modern,” Tinterow explained.
With so many examples of that innovation, visitors will likely find the exhibition a wonder to wander through, but perhaps somewhat overwhelming in its breadth and depth. We’ll have until January 16, 2017 to get a deeper look into this new vision of Degas, but for a first view here are a few themes to look for within the nine galleries.
The Artist as Explorer
Some of these new understandings about Degas that the exhibition examines would at first seem antithetical. Degas was always exploring new modes of expression while also maintaining great continuity. He was not a one-masterpiece-and-done artist, creating and then moving on to the next piece with no backward glance. Instead, he would delve into many of the same theme motifs and even body poses and gestures again and again throughout his creative life.
“Degas’s approach to his art was very much like that of Picasso or Matisse, someone who worked within a repertoire of themes, forms, palettes but constantly pushed against that and himself to create something that was in serial, one after the other, a work that was building this very complex and ongoing oeuvre,” described Tinterow.
Humans at Work
From his earlier portraits of family and friends, Degas moved to portraits of people of various professions acting in those professions, until the work itself became the focus. From ballet dancers in rehearsal halls, musicians playing in the orchestra pit, jockeys on horses, and merchants in a New Orleans cotton office, capturing “scenes of everyday life of modern life in an urban environment” became the focus of Degas’s own creative work.
“The professional situation became the subject and the people start to shrink away and the subject starts to take on greater importance,” explained Tinterow.
Women in the World
Degas never married nor had children and critics have sometimes accused him of being a misogynist, but Tinterow believes Degas’s many female friends and the paintings, photos and prints themselves give evidence for a decidedly opposite conclusion.
“He loved women and was fascinated by them. He saw them not as creatures to be observed like specimens under a microscope but as sentient human beings and professional who lived in the world just as men do.”
The walls of women dancing, bathing, singing, ironing, living through loss, walking through museums and even getting drunk on Absinthe might attest to this fascination.
Black and White
Degas’s constant experimentation, his trying new mediums just to see what will happen leads him to black-and-white mediums several times in his career. His own artistic experimenting plus his family’s financial problems bring him to monotype, a kind of printing process that allowed him to make and then sell his work quickly.
Later in life he turned to photography and would make friends hold a pose for hours after dinner parties as he arranged and rearranged lights and humans to compose these new visions in black-and-white.
Dive into Color
"Orgies of Color" was a phrase Degas apparently used to describe his renewed dive into color later in his life. Throughout the exhibition the colors mute, go black-and-white and then blaze up again in combinations Tinterow described as sometimes “even violent.”
Look for some of these colors tinging with aggressiveness in their vibrance in the later galleries, from landscapes that veer towards the abstract to dancers in radiating reds and nude bathers in Gallery Eight that seem to be washing themselves in neon.
While Houstonians will get to explore Degas’s exploration at their leisure, don’t be surprised if the exhibition brings in art lovers from around the state and perhaps even the nation. Houston will be the only city to see this New Vision in the entire western hemisphere.
And just how rare is it to have this many Degas works in one exhibition? Well, an incident from the preview tour perhaps describes it best. More than once during the media walk-through, Loyrette wandered off from the group. We would later find him in a nearby gallery, rather adorably, gazing at a painting only to be disturbed from his reverie by Tinterow calling his name, sometimes several times, to bring him back to the present.
When even the exhibition’s curator is taking every last moment to soak in the presence of all those Degas art in place, Houston and Texas probably shouldn’t take the opportunity to spend time three months with Degas for granted.
Degas: A New Vision is a ticket exhibition on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until January 16, 2017.