It’s just as well Edgar Degas isn’t here to see all this. He loathed selling his work, and last year his painting The Laundresses sold at auction for $13,688,400. He rarely exhibited because he deplored the commercial aspects of art, but from now through Jan. 8, 1989, around 300 of his works are on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the first comprehensive Degas retrospective in 50 years. Most of all he despised journalists and literary types who probed his personal life and claimed to explain his works. Yet this has been a year of major expansion for the Degas literature—two art magazines devoted entire issues to him and, quel horreur, there is even a Degas video.
Degas’s works are, of course, best seen at the splendidly conceived and mounted Met show. Go if you can. Not everyone can make it to New York, however, and besides, there are those long ticket lines and huge crowds. Those who want to appreciate Degas in the comfort of their living rooms shouldn’t feel left out. These two books and that video provide a substantial facsimile of the museum experience:
Degas (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, $45 hardcover, $35 paper) is a model of what an exhibition catalog should be. Because pictures of his ballet scenes are on calendars and note cards everywhere, Degas is known to many only as the painter of dancers. As such, he’s even a Trivial Pursuit question. But the hefty, compelling Degas, overseen by art historian Jean Sutherland Boggs, proves that the artist was far more than just a balletomane. After an introductory essay on each of the four periods of Degas’s work, followed by an exhaustive chronology, the often complex genesis of each work in the show is outlined. Many of these works are fully examined for the first time, shedding new light on Degas’s methods. For hard-core Degas lovers, that kind of stuff can be thrilling to read.
His biography makes for fascinating reading too. Born into a wealthy banking family in 1834, Degas became a peripatetic student, roaming through the Louvre and intently copying the melodramatic masterpieces in its cavernous galleries. As a young man, he went to Italy and returned bearing sketchbooks crowded with rough drawings inspired by the Renaissance giants. In time, Degas grew into a crotchety paradox who, despite his own strict sense of privacy, reveled in the intimate details of life in late 19th-century Paris. First he wandered through the various social milieus of the city—its cafés, its brothels, its ballets, its racetracks, even its laundries. Then he used painting to expose those subcultures with disturbing insight and unsurpassed draftsmanship. By middle age, despite his reluctance to sell his art, he was feverishly working to repay debts that accrued when the family banking fortune was lost. At the end of his life, nearly blind, Degas spent his days shut away in his Paris studio, twisting and shaping bits of clay into the tormented figures he saw in his imagination. Fewer than half of these survived his own impatience.
Lusher than the Met catalog, Degas, by art historian Robert Gordon and critic Andrew Forge (Abrams, $75), will look stunning on your coffee table. As the book’s picture editor, Gordon tracked down many previously unpublished works and supervised the superb, revealing reproductions. Together for the first time, for instance, a series of dancers adjusting their shoes magnificently captures the electricity of Degas’s technique. There are also new and clarifying translations by poet Richard Howard of historical letters, diaries and periodicals. Unfortunately, the main text by Forge is often tediously unfocused, and he waxes poetic about pictures without giving a page reference for them. Constantly flipping to the index can be maddening in a book with 324 reproductions. It’s just as well that merely looking at the pictures is so rewarding.
For nonreaders and non-New Yorkers, the video, Edgar Degas, The Unquiet Spirit (Home Vision; $39.95, 800-262-8600), offers an illuminating introduction to the artist and his work. Writer-narrator David Thompson, a former London Times critic, draws viewers into Degas’s world and time, nimbly tying his art to his life. Using photographs and film clips, the tape provides a chronological journey that tracks a man possessed by his vocation, a visionary who once observed, “Art is not a matter of what you can see, but what you can make other people see.” Originally produced for BBC television, this 65-minute video includes a rich assortment of oils, pastels and charcoals full of Degas’s gift for capturing the unguarded moment: a woman sponging herself in the privacy of her bath, a sylphlike ballerina arranging her bodice, a stout laundress yawning wearily from the steady demands of her workaday world. Even on home video, Degas’s images convey a sense of tension, alienation and melancholy. Thompson also includes examples of Degas’s etchings, photographic studies of light and wax sculptures, which the museum retrospective doesn’t include.
This tape is too elementary for seasoned Degas fanciers. For those less familiar with the artist and the influences at play in his creations, Thompson presents a colorful, arresting portrait of an elusive genius.