The Guerilla Girls famously asked 'Do women have to be naked to get in the Met Museum?' to draw attention to the fact that most museums had more paintings OF naked women than they had paintings BY clothed, or indeed naked, women. If you ran a museum and were trying to redress this balance Edgar Degas is not the artist you'd call upon.
Of course, he's not the first (nor will he be the last) elderly man to get a cheap thrill from nubile young women with exposed flesh, evolution made us that way, but, unfortunately, for Degas the charge sheet doesn't stop there. He claimed art wasn't "something you marry. It's something you rape" and had trouble accepting that one of Mary Cassatt's paintings could possibly have been created by a mere woman. Women, for Degas, were clearly purely for decoration.
But being a 'dinosaur', even at a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, does not mean that Degas can't be a great artist (separate the man and his work and all that) any more than being exceptionally woke for your age, your gender, and your colour makes you a first class art critic and blogger. That's just a happy coincidence. One I'll live with.
In the Tuileries Gardens (c.1880)
I was spending a rainy Wednesday afternoon deep in the lower galleries, the ones where you lose your 4G, of the National Gallery looking at Drawn from Colour:Degas from the Burrell, a free exhibition, spread over three rooms, of paintings from the impressionist artist who stood apart from the other impressionist artists to such a degree that he even joked that if he could he'd arrange for gendarmes to shoot plein-air painters and described the colour yellow as a "horrible thing".
The Burrell Collection was amassed by shipping magnate Sir William Burrell and is now housed in Glasgow's Pollok Country Park. As the museum is currently closed for refurbishment its collection of twenty Degas works was able to travel, for the first time since their acquisition, out of Scotland. As well as the nudes there were represented two of Degas' other favourite themes. Ballet dancers, of course, and horses.
Degas loved horses so much he identified as one (sort of). In one of his less problematic quotes he once claimed "I feel as a horse must feel when the beautiful cup is given to the jockey" suggesting that he felt he was doing all the hard work, "Art is really a battle" he whined, while other less talented artists got all the credit. He was a curmudgeon and a highly competitive one at that, and it seems to me that as he'd had the most traditional training of all the impressionists, and because he'd visited Italy and studied both classical and Renaissance art, he saw himself operating on a more elevated plain than his contemporaries.
Jockeys in the Rain (c.1883-1886)
Truth be told, I'd take Monet's water lilies, Pissarro's boulevards, and Cezanne's groundbreaking moves towards abstraction over Degas any day. His work, like his views on women, simply hasn't aged as well. It's too pretty, too biscuit tin. The National Gallery probably turn over a decent profit on sales of commemorative scarves and postcards but the shock of the old, with Degas, has gone.
The high horizons and empty foreground space in Jockeys in the Rain would've been incredibly bold at the time and it's still a good painting now but so far have we moved that it's difficult to imagine it would once have been almost shocking. Perhaps it's the fact that the show is made up entirely of pastels that makes it all feel a bit soft focus. In works like The Red Ballet Skirts and The Green Ballet Skirt the colours are fierce, presaging the advent of Matisse and Derain's fauvism, but other canvases, Women in a Theatre Box or Russian Dancers, seem almost to dissolve into nothingness.
Just last year, here at the National Gallery, Chris Ofili demonstrated how that watery look can still be highly effective but, to these eyes, it doesn't seem to be what Degas did best. As well as the brighter colours his unusual cropping was one of the things that made him stand out as an artist. His early scenes of jewellers, launderettes, and cafes are soon replaced by ballet dancers obscured by spiral staircases and cut in half by the edge of the frame.
Women in a Theatre Box (c.1885-1890)
The Red Ballet Skirts (c.1900)
The Rehearsal (c.1874)
Despite, or perhaps because of, being a misogynist who treated women (or spoke of them) as a completely different species Degas was a huge fan of the ballet. In 1885 alone he attended fifty-four performances and whilst he may've had trouble accepting women as humans he did, miraculously in the circumstances, manage to evince their humanity in his portraits. Of course he said he wasn't interested in the dancers but the movement itself, their clothes, and the combination of the two. The way the clothes moved as they danced and the way the light, pouring in from a window so he wouldn't have to go outside (obvs), played on the whole scene. For a guy who wanted plein-air painters shot he did seem to have quite a touch when it came to depiction of light and shade.
The Green Ballet Skirt (c.1896)
Russian Dancers (c.1899)
Woman in a Tub (c.1896-1901)
After the Bath (c.1896)
Like any voyeur he had his kinks and we can see, quite clearly, that for Degas these were ladies backs, ladies bums, and ladies hair. If the hair was being combed or washed then all the better. As he peeped through some kind of imaginary spy hole at these women's most private moments he managed to combine being something of a potential sex pest with creating some wonderfully intimate, if somewhat depersonalised, portraits.
Woman in a Tub is a celebration of circularity. The sponge, the tub, and the model's bum all rhyme effortlessly, in After the Bath yet another faceless sitter merges into her towel, and Woman at her Toilette sees Degas celebrating, not for the last time, long straight auburn hair. The strawberry blonde is celebrated even further in Combing the Hair, a painting which sees hair, dress, and background all blurring into one scarlet symphony just as Henri Matisse's Dinner Table would do some twelve years later. The model even gets to show her face.
I learnt a lot about Edgar Degas in this little exhibition and though I came away feeling less charitable towards the man and his problematic personality (there's a whole other story to be written about his virulent racism) I could, finally, recognise that the bigoted old tosser was a far better painter than he was a man. Edgar Degas never married.
Woman at her Toilette (c.1897)
Combing the Hair (c.1896)