Bodily Waste

David Trotter

  • The Spectacular Body: Science, Method and Meaning in the Work of Degas by Anthea Callen
    Yale, 244 pp, £35.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 300 05443 2

No other 19th-century artist made quite such a spectacle of the female body as Edgar Degas. Over three-quarters of his output of paintings, drawings, pastels, prints and sculptures consists of images of women, sometimes seen in the company of men or children, but more often alone or with other women. The nude figure is the subject of about a fifth of that total, from the copies and life studies he made as a young man in the 1850s through the early history paintings to the naturalistic studies of the 1870s and 1880s and beyond.

This encyclopedic survey of womanhood has recently attracted a great deal of attention, much of it stimulated by the massive 1988 exhibition of Degas’s work, and by the publication in the same year of Richard Thompson’s magisterial primer, Degas: The Nudes. Feminist art criticism, in particular, has added richness and edge to debates about the relationship between form and meaning. That relationship is the focus of Anthea Callen’s study of the visualisation of the female body in late 19th-century Paris.

Callen believes that art historians have tended to neglect visual analysis – which in her view should always be conducted in the presence of the work of art, rather than by means of reproductions – in favour of the study of ‘narrative content’. ‘Medium, composition, mise-en-page spatial organisation, pose and gesture, colour, light and shade, mark-making processes – indeed the whole physical object – must be taken into account, if the ideological structures they embody are to be understood.’ The emphasis on ‘ideological structures’ indicates that Callen believes formal analysis to be only the beginning of a process which would not be complete without a patient elaboration of historical context. In particular, she wishes to set the agitated response of Degas’s contemporaries to his images of women against the ‘unquestioning aesthetic approval’ those images have since received in ‘mainstream culture’. The dialectic between visual analysis of works of art and the elaboration of historical context shapes her argument.

Degas staked his claim to leadership of the realist faction among modern painters by showing at the 1881 Impressionist Exhibition two pastels which share the title Criminal Physiognomy, as well as The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, a sculpture modelled in wax and dressed in a real tutu, tights and ballet-slippers, as well as a horsehair wig. The titles used for the two pastels, both of which depicted members of a brutal teenage gang, invited a physiognomic reading. In his 1876 essay ‘Sur la physionomie’, Degas’s friend and critic Edmond Duranty had argued for the systematisation of traditional ideas about the relation between identity and appearance, then still associated primarily with the Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). Degas himself spoke of his ambition to ‘make of expressive heads (academic style) a study of modern feeling – it is Lavater, but a more relativistic Lavater, so to speak, with symbols of today rather than the past.’ Social Darwinism endorsed Duranty’s description of criminals as the ‘savages of the civilised world’. In at least two of the gang members, shown in strict profile so as to reveal the low forehead and prominent jaw considered characteristic of prehistoric man, Degas saw a ‘living anachronism’ of the sort defined by contemporary social theory. Callen demonstrates in her first chapter that the dancer statue has as much of a ‘criminal physiognomy’ as the accompanying pastels: comparison of the preparatory drawings and maquette with the finished sculpture reveals that Degas progressively flattened the dancer’s profile until it came to resemble the idea of criminal atavism advanced by physiognomic science.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in