Humph, He, Ha

Julian Barnes

  • Degas: A Passion for Perfection
    Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 14 January
  • Degas Danse Dessin: Hommage à Degas avec Paul Valéry
    Musée d’Orsay, Paris, until 25 February
  • Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell
    National Gallery, London, until 7 May
  • Degas and His Model by Alice Michel, translated by Jeff Nagy
    David Zwirner, 88 pp, £8.95, June 2017, ISBN 978 1 941701 55 3

The great French diarist Jules Renard (1864-1910) had small interest in non-literary art forms. When Ravel approached him wanting to set five of his Histoires naturelles, Renard couldn’t see the point; he didn’t forbid it, but declined to go to the premiere. He sat through Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and found it a ‘sombre bore’, its plot ‘puerile’. His attitude to painting was a little more responsive: he admired (and knew) Lautrec, and approved of Renoir; but he found Cézanne barbarous and Monet’s waterlilies ‘girly’. This was less philistinism than a robust admission of his own areas of non-response. And he did write one wonderful thing about painting, on 8 January 1908: ‘When I am in front of a picture, it speaks better than I do.’

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