I came into the gallery today and noticed a familiar, intoxicating perfume in the air. It made me nostalgic for a romantic past, full of possibilities and ignorant of future complications that so often doom our first loves. Chanel number 5? Obsession? Dior? Polo by Ralph Lauren? No, no, no and DEAR GOD, no; it was oil paint. I broke up with the classical medium of oil years ago in favor of a younger, faster painting media- acrylic (Sorry Oil, it’s not you, it’s me!). I looked around and was struck by a glowing red and pink canvas, newly installed in the gallery. Member Artist Wanda Cox has apparently been busy in her studio, and has brought in some new work to share with you. The new, red painting depicts a ballerina, bending at the waist to touch the floor, her arms delicate, her flared platter tutu facing us, making one mistake the image for a flower at first glance. Cox has applied thick paint surrounding the waistline to mimic the fluffy fabric of the tutu, a technique painters call ‘impasto’. The texture catches the light and enhances the gestural character of the image. The work is decidedly romantic, but how else does one paint such a subject? In ballet vernacular, there is even a costume known as a ‘Romantic’ tutu (it’s longer and less stiff than a ‘platter’), so it’s the sort of subject an artist can unapologetically invest with emotion and nostalgia.
One can’t help when seeing such a work but to think of other examples, and what’s more emblematic of the genre than Edgar Degas and his ballerina paintings? Even more specifically, the statue of the ballet student standing, in fourth position in the Metropolitan Museum? Starting around the 1870’s, Degas was among the pioneers of Impressionism and though he shared many of their technical trappings (short, quick applications of optically mixed color and so forth), he was in fact lass interested in light (as Monet was) and more interested in movement and people, making the dancers a particularly appealing subject. Degas produced some 1500 pieces of painting, drawing, and sculpture, of his ballerina subjects at the Paris Opera, making up over half of his life’s production. I thought for today’s blog entry that I would draw some interesting comparisons to Cox’s work, but when I started some reading, I discovered some alarming assertions that have made me reconsider how I see these most ubiquitous of Impressionist works. You see dear Reader, the thing is…..Degas hated women; or, to be fair, MOST women.
Hilaire Germaine Edgar Degas was born in 1834 to a 26 year old half French, half Italian banker, and a 19 year old New Orleans Creole woman. Degas’s father was well set up, being the son of a former baker who found himself doing rather well as a money changer during the Napoleonic wars. As a result, though nouveau riche, the Degas family enjoyed a stately home in Paris, one in Naples, plus a countryside villa (naturally), and the American relations in Louisiana lived on a sprawling plantation along the Mississippi Delta and a mansion on the Vieux Carre. Edgar and his relations were the picture of haute bourgeoisie, with stove pipe hats and a penchant for collecting walking sticks, and he held ‘honor’ above all else. His early paintings of the race course gave way to the Opera stage and the ballet corps of 200 women and girls, which, by the time Degas took interest, had fallen far from its Golden Age. The French Ballet was little more than an obligatory interlude for the Opera, more tradition with a side of scandalous spectacle (naked legs!) than high dancing art, and Degas was not exaggerating their unappealing features if the surviving photographs are any indication. Furthermore, the dancers were relatively young and plucked from the streets or other such degrading circumstances and were expected to serve as prostitutes to supplement income and patronage- some as young as 13. But this wasn’t Monsieur Degas’s interest, as he was definitely heterosexual (his brother destroyed a collection of erotic works after his death), but also famously celibate. What he enjoyed was not the kitschy opera interludes, but rather the dancers in their costumes in the glaring lights, moving through space as pawns in his artistic game of composition.
For Degas, and many men of the day, these dancers were ‘petits rats’, little more than vulgar animals to be exploited, and his choice to remove artifice and instead focus on the sweaty reality of the dancers was as much misogyny as it was artistic genius. He stated, “I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal,” and he told the painter Georges Jeanniot, “Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they can feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.” It’s a grotesque opinion to be sure, and circular in its logic since many working women of the day (dancers, laundresses, seamstresses and so forth) had to engage in prostitution just to make up for their pitiful earnings in their ‘honest’ labors; labors which undoubtedly served the very men who then degraded them for further ‘services’ after paying them not nearly enough to survive upon in the first place. To then blame such women for their ‘poor choices’ in order to justify degrading their characters is the very height of hypocrisy but sadly it was not then, nor is it now, uncommon. It was a misogynist society and Degas was a prime example of one, though in his desire to focus on these unsavory aspects of ‘Woman’, he somehow ended up celebrating them in our modern eyes and providing us a singular beauty for posterity.
He was noted for his cruel voyeurism and difficulty, by the women he exploited for his feverish works, who also noted his use of filthy language. The working women who modeled for him commented how he just wanted to watch you “…wash your @#$”. As his eyesight failed later in life, he did less drawing and painting, and turned to sculptures in wax. Perhaps not being able to see his living dolls and control and abuse them for his amusement, he decided to make wax dolls of his own for the same purposes. The major result was The Little Dancer with her real costume (a sculpture with ‘real’ accessories? How avante garde!), in blotchy wax, as if Degas was reaching for verisimilitude, but not too hard so as to spoil his insulting characterization. Its reception was chilly, and it wasn’t seen after its premiere, which was scandalous. The girl’s haughty expression was vulgar, her costume silly, the coloring unappealing, and it closed the books on Degas showing his sculpture in his lifetime. To be fair, Degas had made the choice to flatten her forehead and extend her chin, which were considered genetic hallmarks of the degenerates of society, so the reaction couldn’t have been unexpected. After his death his heirs had the surviving 150 waxes, including the Dancer, cast in bronze, and editions of his most famous figure came with different tutus and ribbons as if she were little more than a giant doll for sexist adult men; apparently there’s around 27 casts, though this is disputed. Her name was Marie Van Goethem and after posing for Degas for the sculpture, she was soon after released from the ballet due to her absences (posing for Degas no doubt) and presumably turned fulltime to prostitution, which was only a part time pursuit before. She disappears from all record after that, and one can only hope she ended her life in some degree of peace. She was 14 when she posed.
Scholars and artist friends of Degas have argued for years how the implicit eroticism of his works balances against his apparent resistance to any female attachments. Was he gay, impotent, some sort of kinky fetishist or deformed? Was his desire to throw off traditional artistic notions of taste and style also reflected in his resistance to traditional marriage? It is noted in his biography that he caught VD from a youthful dalliance with a prostitute, and in a day when such diseases were all too common and mostly untreatable, with many ending in madness and death, one can understand the desire to abstain. But other theories abound; Van Gogh (yes, THAT Van Gogh) suggested that whatever sexual energy Degas possessed was turned into his art and that he might have feared that any actual physical engagements with women would dilute his artistic prowess. Picasso was a collector of Degas as well and particularly enjoyed his depictions of brothel scenes, stating that one could almost ‘smell’ them. To the brothel monotypes, Picasso refers to, if the ballerinas are beautiful with a hint of the vulgar, the monotypes are the exact opposite; Picasso was so inspired he did his own series based upon them, complete with a voyeuristic gentleman standing in the shadows watching with wide, staring eyes. So perhaps the answer is tragically simple; Degas was just an inveterate voyeur who couldn’t balance his sexual attractions with his misogynist inclinations who, as a wealthy bourgeoisie, liked to go ‘slumming’. Degas himself seems to affirm this when he stated to his friend, Irish writer George Moore, that looking at his (Degas’s) work was as if you were ‘looking through a keyhole”.
Degas died in relative loneliness having outlived many of his friends and family, at least the ones he didn’t alienate with his bitterness and intractability. Most of the family fortune went down in the Dreyfus affair, a failure of politics and banking, that took Degas’s casual anti-Semitism and mutated it into full blown, vocal, vociferous racism. But throughout his decline, Degas continued his pursuit of some essential truth in art, even as his eyesight failed and his lines grew thicker and bolder, his color heavier and more saturated and his landscapes nearly abstract. What is left to us then is the sort of question that’s become all too common in our ‘Me Too’ generation which is, how do we celebrate the genius while acknowledging the monstrous? Do we discard the baby with the bath water in our pursuit of moral perfection AND beauty, deciding that one cannot co-exist with the other? Or can we accept that artists might intend one thing, but what viewers see is something else, and that this dialogue completes the work? I think that it is the combination of those two opposing perceptions that holds the key, each held equally and at the same time, which are that a person can do great and good things, while being a flawed and insufficient person in other aspects of life. A person with bad intentions may still do some good in other words. Monsieur Degas may have intended his ‘little rats’ to condemn and degrade women and reflect his frustrated sexuality, but instead, triumphantly, little Mademoiselle Marie has not cooperated, and for us, she is a thing of eternal virtue and beauty.
So, take THAT, Edgar!