Drawn in by Degas

My favourite outing the few times I’m in Houston is visiting their Museum of Fine Arts. I happened to be there recently when Degas: A New Vision was on display and got to see this retrospective exhibit of this famous French Impressionist’s work—the largest in the US in nearly 30 years!

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The exhibit begins with an insightful chronology of Edgar Degas’s life. I cherished this quote from his family because it shows such familial concern yet tenderness for their hardworking artist—something that all families of artists have felt at one time or another. I wish I could have told them from where I stand in history that it’ll be alright.

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Degas painted everybody everywhere—from prostitutes sitting in cafés to bourgeois women at concerts; from male patrons loitering backstage at ballets to businessmen making deals on the streets; from the ordinary event of women washing their hair to the spectacle of Parisian society watching a horse race. All these types of paintings were on display at MFAH but I’ll show you a few of my favourites that were particularly exciting to see in person.

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Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier (1872).

I appreciate that Degas didn’t just paint final performances. He showed the work of preparing for a show—the stretches, repetition, boredom, sweat, and fatigue. He did countless drawings of ballerinas’ movements before he painted them (many of which were also on exhibit), and I like how the description on one of the panels said Degas became such a master of technique that he could tell when a ballerina had done a move incorrectly.

It’s also fascinating to see how he edited his preliminary drawings when he added them to his paintings. Notice in At the Louvre (1879) how the two women change position and the umbrella changes hands. Interesting fact: the woman leaning on her umbrella was fellow Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

This ballet rehearsal was probably my favourite to see transformed from a textbook page to the colours and brush strokes on the gallery wall:

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Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874).

The composition is so striking. Degas crams all the figures into the upper left and bottom right corners, leaving your eye to wander up the middle where the central ballerina leans forward on one leg. Her outstretched arm connects the gap between her and famous Parisian dance master Jules Perrot. Degas literally renders a slice of contemporary life here through the truncated legs on and around the staircase and the two cropped groups of ballet students—one set working, the other waiting.

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Edgar Degas, Theatre Box (1880).

Degas has the reputation of being an acute observer of contemporary life. You can see that in the painting above where he isolates a female theatre-goer in an ornate box. The artificial light of the stage reflects back on her face, making her look ghostly. Going to the theatre is a social event (especially for this time period in Paris), so why is she alone? Degas captures the alienation typical of modernity. I think this painting is another way of showing that feeling of being alone on a crowded street.

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Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-76).

The last work I’ll mention is In A Café (The Absinthe Drinker). Talk about alienation! This painting so moved me when I first studied it in undergrad that years later I wrote a short story about a blind date inspired by it. I like how Robert L. Herbert describes what’s going on in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society:

Shoulders slumped, eyes cast down, feet splayed out, her costume frowzy, she is the café habituée rooted to her seat, without aspirations. She will derive little comfort from the man next to her, the kind of elbow-leaner who will remain there for hours, eventually shuffling off to an uncertain destination. This is one of Degas’s most devastating images of public life.

There are many devastating things about this painting—how the floating tables trap the man and woman behind their drinks; how the two figures sit beside each other without engaging; how Degas seats us at the table diagonal to these forlorn figures, watching all this as if we too are supposed to be as detached as the painter but we cannot help but be drawn in.

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Backstage Truths

Last weekend, the long weekend, I was surrounded by people saying things like “frame,” “BTS,” “room tone,” “boom operator,” and many other film-related jargon that was completely foreign to me.

I was an extra in a short film called Souls that Balance. The title, taken from the first line of this poem, intrigued me from the start, and it was great fun to make my first foray into the acting world with such a great team of people and what seems like an incredibly creative script. To qualify that statement, I should hardly call what I did acting since all you can see is the back of my head, but still. I was on a film set!

A few brief observations from the weekend about acting and film-making:

  • Long days, early mornings
  • Details matter – like, every single detail in every single shot matters. I have so much more appreciation when I watch films now.
  • A lot of waiting around. I can see how people on a film set can get really close in a short amount of time, because you’re all waiting around together in the same space. The community part of it was the highlight.
  • I think there’s a tendency to glamourize actor’s lives and the work they do, but after this experience, I didn’t see any glamour—just a lot of work. Saying your line over and over again as if it was the first time. Or saying the line perfectly but having to redo it anyway because some detail was out of place, or the camera angle was slightly off. Requires a lot of patience and concentration.
  • It’s all about the light. One of the other extras who’s involved in the Vancouver acting community told me she immediately knew how serious the production was by the lighting equipment on set.

Seems like so many things/professions depend on the light. Photographers, painters, lovers. This film experience made me think of the Impressionists who made light their subject. Sure, they painted boats and people and gardens, but the subject of their paintings—what they were after—was how the light fell on the boats and people and gardens: how our perception of things depends on when and how we are seeing it.

Monet. Bathers at La Grenouillère (1869)

Take Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series for an example. Over thirty paintings in total, different seasons, different times of day. As the Wikipedia entry states, the cathedral provides an interesting juxtaposition between a solid, permanent structure and the evanescent quality of light.

When the light is right, you just know. I knew when I was in New York City and took this photo. This was my favourite picture from the whole trip, all because of the light. No touch-ups, no Photoshop, no nothing added to it. Just sun and sky and stone kissing at 1047 Amsterdam Ave in Morningside Heights.

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC. Charlene Kwiatkowski 2011.

On the subject of Impressionists, Degas’ ballerina paintings similarly convey the unglamorous work that goes on behind-the-scenes (BTS) of anyone who performs. While he also painted ballerinas performing on stage in front of 19th-century bourgeois Parisians, many of his pieces show ballerinas in rehearsal—training, stretching, and yes, waiting. In this way, Degas’ works give outsiders a view from the other side, behind the curtain where it’s all work, fatigue, and routine. And some critics didn’t like this “backstage pass” so to speak because it wasn’t pretty. But it’s true.

Degas. Monsieur Perrot’s Dance Class (1875)

Degas. The Dance Lesson (1872)

Degas. Waiting (1882)

Degas. The Mante Family (1880)

In response to the painting directly above, The Mante Family, critic J-K. Huysmans wrote:

What truth! What life! How all these figures hold the space, how exactly the light bathes the scene, how the expression of these physiognomies, the searching look of the mother whose hopes rise when her daughter’s body unbends, the indifference of comrades for well-known weariness, how these are etched out and noted with the perspicacity of an analyst at once cruel and subtle.

This makes Degas a realist, or a naturalist to use the artistic term.

Degas. Rehearsal (1879)

Rehearsal (1879) says it even more. I love the way Robert Herbert writes about it in his book Impressionism, my go-to guide for painters of this style:

Here [light] models the dancers in reverse, and stresses the artifice involved, that is, natural light is made to seem artificial in the fiction of the picture, as it is in actuality: it is the artist himself who took the colors of his palette and made up the dancers’ masks. ‘Light,’ that is, artists’ paint, reveals backstage truths, the hard work and ugly grimaces which cannot be seen by spectators at a performance. This is–again!–the work of a naturalist. ‘Oh! all the things in the world, as long as one sees them from behind!’ wrote the Goncourt brothers.”

What backstage truths have you encountered, whether it be in the performing arts or other industries?

Beautiful things we hide

How do I love thee? Let me lock you up.

Sounds a bit harsh, but isn’t that what we do with beautiful things?

Guggenheim Museum, New York City. I actually really like this circular space, but the walls are still white and you’re still looking at works of art in a museum.

We stick masterpieces in sterile environments like museums and art galleries. On one hand, this preserves the art. On the other, it sucks the life right out of them.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The building’s exterior may be unique, but the galleries inside look much like any other museum.

If art is meant to imitate life, where does life happen? In schools, streets, libraries, places of worship, pubs, cafés, offices, homes, malls, parks, public spaces—the list goes on. Instead of having beautiful things all grouped together in one place, wouldn’t art integrated with life enrich our day-to-day experiences?

How much more significant would it be to encounter Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère that I wrote about here when you’re ordering your drink at a bar? You would literally become that invisible yet reflected customer in the mirror who’s supposed to feel a bit uncomfortable.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. 1881-82. By Edouard Manet

Or how about seeing Degas’ Portraits in an Office or Edmond Duranty in your own office or workplace? The stack of papers and expression that says, “where do I begin?” looks pretty familiar.

Portraits in an Office, New Orleans. 1873. By Edgar Degas.

Edmond Duranty, 1879. By Edgar Degas.

There’s something about seeing art in the context it references that adds to the viewer’s experience. You don’t get the same effect when viewing art in a neutral space like a museum where every other painting shares the same backdrop. Let’s spread out the beauty. Many cities do have public art installations. How about indoors? Most restaurants and cafés hang art on their walls – I actually talked about this in my last post. Maybe even your workplace does. Can we extend this to other spheres we live life in too?

For example, I’m not a huge shopper and I have a strong dislike for malls, but even I would find a sterile suburban mall slightly more bearable if decorated with artwork such as these by modern Impressionist painter Leonid Afremov:

Day of Shopping. By Leonid Afremov

I’d be doing the same activity as these shoppers on canvas — there’s an affinity there between painted and real subjects. I am in their scene and they are in mine. In this way, seeing art in the context it references helps remove some of the distance between art and viewer that tends to get put up when visiting art in a museum. Even the term “visiting” has an alienating quality to it, like we are entering a world separated from ours when the two are, in fact, inseparable – nor should they be. I’m not saying every painting has to be put in the context it depicts (sometimes a piece speaks to us more if it seems out of place)  but I do think we should consider and play with the powerful space where art and life intersect.

Shopping District. By Leonid Afremov

What spaces in your life would you like to see come alive with art?

I’ll leave you with the song that inspired these thoughts.