Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell @ The National Gallery

A loan from the Burrell Collection

The Burrell Collection Glasgow is currently closed for a major refurbishment until 2020. Among other things it houses a spectacular collection of works by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas who, as it happens, passed away a hundred years ago this September (1834–1917). So what better way to celebrate this centenary – and display works which would otherwise be gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere – than by loaning this priceless collection to the National Gallery in London, where it nicely complements the National Gallery’s own collection of Degas pastels?

Thus, in the Ground Floor galleries (conveniently close to the café and restaurant) you can visit this fabulous FREE exhibition of 13 pastels, three drawings, and four oil paintings by Degas, the first time that most of them have been seen outside Glasgow since they were acquired in the early 1900s.

At the Jewellers(1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

At the Jewellers (1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The show is downstairs in the fairly newish exhibition space of the Annenberg Wing. The light is deliberately dimmed to preserve works which, we are told, have already faded significantly in their 130 years of existence. It’s like entering a cathedral and oh, what entrancing, ravishing objects are here to worship!

There are some oil paintings, a few rough sketches and one statue – but this show is mostly about Degas’s supernatural gift with pastels – and what a gift it was!

The wall panels (and the book in the shop outside) liberally describe Degas as the most gifted draughtsman of the 19th century and his skill at creating outlines and shapes is breath-taking. Look at the horse on the far right of Jockeys in the rain. The closer you look the more perfect it becomes.

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

His early training was academic, trained to draw in studios with a spell in Rome to sketch and draw from classical masters. But he wasn’t satisfied and embarked on a lifelong course of technical experimentation with materials, and particularly with the supremely flexible medium of pastel that he came to prefer over painting in oil.

Degas had a deep interest in Japanese prints and helped bring them to public attention in 1870s Paris. He used photographs as models for his subjects. And he studied classical friezes for their posing of the human subject and of horses.

Pastel became increasingly important to Degas in his later years at a time when, coincidentally, brilliant colour began to play an essential role in the contemporary art he admired, and his own eyesight started to fail. The tactile immediacy and luminous colours of pastel, as well as its ephemeral and fragile quality, allowed him to create astonishingly bold and dynamic works of art, distinct from those of his fellow Impressionists.

Degas and pastels

  1. Smooth In his early works (1870s) Degas uses pastels ‘unfixed’ by oil or fixative; they are flat, and highly smudged and blended in order to create an oil painting effect.
  2. Rough and lined As he became more proficient (1880s) Degas came to use a ‘fixative’ between successive layers of pastel to build up layers, to create what experts call a ‘crust’. In tandem he dropped the technique of blurring and adopted strong, visible, directional strokes, strikingly virile lines which seem gouged across the paper as you look closely. The harshness of this cross-hatching is evident in the two works above which are to a large extent made up out of lines.
  3. Colour As the 19th century progressed industrial scientists developed new ranges of vivid and vibrant colours. These became available as readymade oil paints in tubes – which greatly helped the Impressionists aim of painting out of doors, far from the studio. But they also became available as pastel sticks, sticks made from chalk, binding agents and dyes.
  4. Water Degas developed a technique of dipping the tips of the pastel sticks into water in order to dab thick and bright highlights on top of finished works, for example the decorative highlights on the dresses of the Three dancers

Innovations

Degas was one of the greatest artistic innovators of his age.

1. Subject matter

He turned from the traditional subjects and technical conventions of his training to find new ways to depict modern, urban life. In Degas’s work, both the highs and lows of Parisian life are depicted: from scenes of elegant spectators and jockeys at the racecourse, to tired young women ironing in subterranean workshops.

His most famous subjects were ballet dancers, generally caught in informal, behind-the-scenes moments; and women at their toilette, bathing or combing their hair. If we didn’t know it before, we learn that Degas lived close to the Paris Opera where ballet was performed and gained regular entrance to the rehearsal studios, and even to the wings of the theatre itself.

2. Private moments

With his intimate depictions of women bathing or combing their hair Degas knew he was subverting artistic tradition. Until his time women had mostly been posed in a way that presupposed an audience (for example, the great odalisques of Ingres). Degas’ women aren’t posing for anyone.

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The apparent crudity and the unashamed frankness of these works shocked and repelled contemporary audiences. Obviously we in 2017 have seen and read everything, nothing shocks us. But these works momentarily begged the question: are they more ‘natural’ than the Ingres/Salon tradition of perfectly portrayed naked women? Or are they more creepily ‘voyeuristic’? Is there something suspect about viewing naked women at such vulnerable and exposed moments?

The wall labels raise this question without resolving it: I think the answer is that the subject matter is mostly eclipsed by the technique. Sure, they’re scantily clad women; but quite obviously there is nothing salacious or pornographic about them – there are hardly any bare boobs whereas there are lots of backs bent or stretching. The real interest of the pictures is in their unusual composition, and especially in their vibrant use of colour.

3. Unconscious movements

Having studied the human figure as it is carefully posed in art school, in statues and in all previous art, Degas was restless to capture fleeting movements and impressions of modern life. His private women, the famous ballet dancers, and the jockeys, are all caught in off-guard poses.

You never (so far as I know) see the horses racing. You see them jostling nervously before, or calming down exhaustedly after, the race.

Similarly, the hundreds of sketches, pastels, oils and sculptures he made of ballet dancers are very rarely of performances – overwhelmingly, they’re of ballerinas backstage, or from the wings, in rehearsal, resting, stretching. The show includes an example of a ballerina adjusting a shoulder strap. Moments like that. Or these three ballerinas. What are they doing? Where are they? In a rehearsal studio? In the wings during a performance?

Unofficial locations, off-guard moments, unconscious gestures. (Look at the hand of the ballerina on the right. The other two ballerinas pressing against the wall or theatre ‘flat’.)

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

And yet these fleeting moments are given an extraordinary permanence. The stunning contrast between vibrant orange of the tutus and the lurid green of the flat create an incredibly visual dynamic. But is is the very strong outlines  in black (look at the confidence of the black strokes over the tutus to indicate folds of fabric) and the fact that the figures are lit from above, which combine to give the image a monumental, sculpted feel.

4. Composition

Several points about the compositions:

Ungainly He is interested in the ungainly in human posture. In no way is the woman bending over in her bathtub gracious. In fact, the more you look at her the more her posture begins to dissolve into a purely formal arrangement of colours. (Degas was affected by the later, semi-abstract work of Gauguin.) What do his two most famous subjects, ballerinas and horse, have in in common? They are both in constant motion, an endless supply of odd, awkward, spontaneous, fleeting poses.

Cropped Degas had the habit of cropping images in mid-person or subject. Many of the horse pictures crop horses half way through. None of the examples I’ve included really show this brutal cropping, but some in the exhibition do. It’s related, in some of them, to the way he often began a composition on one sheet, and then added other sheets around it, as the composition grew. Sounds odd, but you can see the joins in several of these works (which you are allowed to view from gloriously close-up, really feeling every stroke of the pastel stick).

Cramped Degas’ routine cropping of subjects is accompanied by his often experimental construction of pictorial space. The people depicted are frequently cramped right into the frame of the picture. Take the vertiginous perspective of the two women crammed together in the work at the top of this post, At the Jewellers or the way the two women in a theatre box are cropped at the edges to make us feel as if we’re thrust right into the scene in the final picture below, Women in a Theatre Box.

Empty Conversely, there can be oddly empty space, as in Woman in a Tub. Come to think of it, where is this tubbing taking place? Where are the details of the room which would give it perspective and context, window, door, carpet, mirror, cupboards? Is the white patch on the left a rug? You realise the tub and woman are floating in an abstract orange space.

A little more intelligible, more readable, is the great gap on the left of Jockeys in the Rain. Combined with the unusually realistic depiction of the horizon, very high in the picture, the composition creates a great sense of space, itself indicating… what? The restlessness of horses, and riders, jostling and shuffling, ready for the race to begin? And why on earth is it in the rain? The scattered blue slashes of pastel from top right are also on a (mild) diagonal and, once you notice them, add to the sense of unease and restlessness.

Empty or cramped or oddly cropped, Degas is always experimenting with compositional space.

Unfinished Degas had a lifelong habit of leaving works unfinished, whether it’s because he was a perfectionist, or restless to move on, or on aesthetic principles, is difficult to gauge. Different models and colleagues have left different accounts of his feverish impatience.

Look at At the jewellers (above). Not only are the two ‘finished’ figures awkward and cramped but (and I have to admit I didn’t notice this at first, maybe because I was standing too close to it) but there’s an entire third figure on the right, barely sketched in and left completely abandoned. Why? Lots of the ballet dancer works reveal big patches of unprepared canvas left exposed.

You can see how this could be part of the aesthetic of catching life on the fly, on the move, the brief unconscious gestures of his subjects, patting their hair or adjusting a strap – just those quick fleeting glimpses of entirely modern life which – as Degas knew from his impeccably classical training – nobody in the history of art had tried to capture before.

So maybe their incompleteness is part of the fleetingness.

5. Colour

Some of the sketches are more or less monochrome and the oil paintings are fairly conventional in colouring – but the pastel works – wow! They are an explosion of the most vivid reds and greens and blues, mauves and oranges.

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

It’s striking to see green used so routinely to convey flesh colour (see the haunch of the woman in the tub) but in fact this technique goes back to the Renaissance.

But the real shock is the red and oranges. The background to the woman in a tub or the women in a box and the ballerinas’ dresses. Wow. It is a shocking and intense colour which dominates the exhibition rooms and has, appropriately enough, been chosen as the exhibition poster. Incredibly, conservationists have shown that the colours were all originally much more intense but that exposure to light has faded them. Dayglo Degas!

In these works you can really see why he came to love pastel: not only were a) new industrially-developed and astonishingly vivid colours available, but b) you can build up a real depth of colour by repeated hatching and ‘fixing’ and colouring again but c) but without having to paint right up to the lines, as you’re obliged to in oil, able to leave large amounts of the surface rough and patchy – the hatching style gives you visual permission to do this – and so d) fulfilling the contemporary, fleeting, impressionist aesthetic.

The commentary uses words like iridescent, fluorescent, vibrant, but words can’t really do justice to quite how astonishingly, violently loud these colours are. They leap off the surface. And yet this vibrancy is always mediated, compromised, somehow made all-the-more dynamic, by the very obvious hatching, the rough bare lines of blue or orange or black which create a tremendous sense of dynamism and excitement.

It’s small, it’s free, but this is one of the most visually exciting exhibitions I’ve been to in ages.

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

P.S.

Nowhere in the exhibition information did it mention that the National Gallery does have other Degas works on display, upstairs in room 42. Worth walking up a flight of stairs and through a few rooms to make your Degas experience complete!

Video

Most galleries nowadays produce short highlights videos to promote their exhibitions. But the National Gallery is now making available recordings of the fifty-minute-long lectures or introductions to their main exhibitions, given by the exhibition curators.

This is an excellent idea, as it helps you get a real sense of what the curators are trying to do, of the practical problems of arranging exhibitions by theme or chronology or medium and so on, plus snippets and insights not available at the show itself.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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