“Degas and The Nude”
Museum of Fine Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
October 9, 2011 - February 5, 2012
NOTE: Wednesday nights after 4 pm, admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $22. And...your General Admission ticket includes one free repeat visit within 10 days!)
For an artist who never married and became a recluse in his later years after 1890, Edgar Degas saw more naked feminine derrières and bosoms than most lucky Frenchman would see in a lifetime. Nearly 1/5 of his 1200 paintings were of nude or semi nude women. While most men might have hormonal urges on their minds when lounging about in saloons, dance halls, and brothels, Degas was intrigued with depicting ballerinas, prostitutes, and other working women whom he befriended, in their sitting rooms, toilettes, and bedrooms in moments arguably more intimate than their couplings with men.
“Degas and the Nude,” combines the formidable holdings of The Musée d’Orsay in Paris with the robust collection of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition includes paintings, etchings, pastels, drawings, mono-prints, and sculpture.
The basement, no other polite way of phrasing it, of the MFA’s new Wing of the America’s seems an unlikely location to hang such a heralded exhibition. No natural light penetrates the gallery, perhaps to protect the pigments and dyes and inks on the artwork. The whispers of spectators in the serpentine traffic that winds its way through the show and the subdued lighting evoke a spirit of veneration as viewers pause thoughtfully in front of each painting. The hush inside turns the exhibit into the Chapel of Edgar Degas.
The show’s shrewd setup is designed to fit into six viewing spaces: “The Classical Body: Degas’s Beginnings;” The Body In Peril;” “The Body Exploited;” “The Body Observed;” “The Body Exhibited;” and “Bodies In Motion.” Each section is introduced by printed panels explaining the room’s theme. The reward of the combining the Orsay (a third of the exhibits contents) and MFA holdings is the inclusion of dozens of Degas’s preliminary sketches, mono-prints or charcoal drawings for many of his works.
The first section of the exhibit shows Degas’s first paintings in the early 1860s. He was aspiring to become a historical painter and employed austere classic compositions and metaphorical themes - the kind of artwork you read about in Art 101 texts and walk right past with a cursory glance in other MFA galleries. His transformation from Neo-Classic to Impressionist is a testament to the artistic upheavals going on in Paris in the late 1800s.
One of the benefits of his early art education is that Degas was a deliberate worker, a work ethic derived from his training in classic art schools in the mid-1800s in which he was required to copy classic art works. Dozens of his monotypes and paintings are accompanied by drawings, sketches or etchings that preceded the final product and show Degas’s endless sense of inventiveness and artistic curiosity.
Degas’s talent is reminiscent of neo-classic Jean-August-Dominique Ingres and romanticist Eugene Delacroix. But while Degas could match their muscular approach to color and drawing, the works that made him a major Impressionist painter are more visceral and play with light and composition more freely. While Ingres and Delacroix were informative, Degas was evocative. Degas painted from his heart.
Edgar Degas was the chronicler of the quiet moments women spent well out of view of the men in their lives. The fleshy paintings and monotypes that make up the bulk of the exhibit focuses on these. Degas rarely painted his female subject’s faces. The female face and its expression would have derailed his intention to capture the simple grace, the universal mystique, of an everyday moment.
Well, mostly. The room “The Body Exploited,” is Degas in tabloid mode. He slips into a bawdy documentary style showing naked or semi-naked prostitutes in unguarded moments, pleasuring themselves, cleaning up after a business call, or indolently lounging around during inevitable lulls in the hours of the day. But even these mono-prints are more in the spirit of chronicling than titillating.
For most of the pictures in the exhibit, he preferred to paint views from the side or back, his subjects toweling off after a bath, combing hair or appraising herself in a mirror. You can almost smell the soap, the body odor, and the damp towels in the instants he captures. Time after time, you become aware of Degas’s classic sense of composition, his palette of richly muted colors, and his insistence on portraying ordinary female figures.
Maybe depictions of these unguarded private moments of solitude and reflection resonate with us because we’ve lived them ourselves. Maybe we just like looking at images of naked women. And I’m endlessly grateful that Edgar Degas’s obsession with female nakedness resulted in beauty that was more than skin deep.
Gallery note: The multimedia guide , an iPhone type device, is worh the five buck rental charge.
"The multimedia guide for the exhibition includes video of pastel and printmaking techniques, plus perspectives from a figure model, a pastel artist, and others. With extensive commentary by George T. M. Shackelford, chair, Art of Europe and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA, the guide is narrated by Amanda Palmer, singer/songwriter and formerly of The Dresden Dolls."
"Degas and The Nude" will be shown at the Musee d'Orsay from March 13- July 1, 2012.