What It Feels Like

Peter Campbell

  • Degas beyond Impressionism
    August 1996
  • Degas beyond Impressionism by Richard Kendall
    National Gallery, 324 pp, £35.00, May 1996, ISBN 1 85709 129 9
  • Degas as Collector
    National Gallery, August 1996

Degas beyond Impressionism at the National Gallery shows an old man’s work. His eyesight was giving him trouble. His subject-matter had narrowed down to a few themes: women – standing, stretching, washing, drying themselves or brushing their hair; dancers – resting, putting on a shoe, standing in the wings or grouped on the stage. Subjects from modern life, which had characterised his early work, are missing: no jockeys, few portraits, no brothels, no street and café scenes, no music-hall singers. Landscapes, more of them than you might expect from a painter who was so scornful of the genre (and some of them in curiously lurid before-the-storm-colours), share the simplified outlines and generalised forms which distinguish the pictures of women.

The work comes from the middle to late 1880s through to the early 1900s. In 1890, at the age of 55, Degas rented a studio at 37 rue Victor Massé in Montmartre, which he used for the next 22 years. Contemporary accounts describe the studio as large, dim, dusty and crowded. Most of the pictures in the present exhibition must have been made there, but they no more describe it than a film describes the studio it was shot in. Later he took over the floors below to live in and to house his collection of paintings.

The transition in Degas’s career – from detailed oil paintings in which one is aware of light and space to large pastels in which one is aware of form and colour – was in part a physical necessity. His eyesight, always bad, was failing. A memoir of Degas by Sickert describes ‘what a torment it was to draw when he could only see round the spot at which he was looking and never the spot itself’. Sickert believed that the late work was an inspired adaptation to apparently intolerable conditions:

It may be safely said that the curious and unique development of the art of pastel that this obstacle compelled him to evolve would not have come into being but for his affliction. A large scale became a necessity. For the shiny medium of oil paint was substituted the flat one of pastel. Minute delicacies of detailed execution had to be abandoned.

As each moment of looking was valuable, pastels – which didn’t have to be allowed to dry – were preferable to the oil painting he had practised in the past, which had enforced delay in the working process.

But even on a purely technical level there is much in late Degas that cannot be explained by age and eyesight. On these matters Richard Kendall’s excellent catalogue of Degas beyond Impressionism is highly instructive, and informative and unintrusive in its judgments. It tests your instincts and answers questions without invading the space between you and the pictures. Some questions are simple. For example, why are so many images variations on one another? Others are moral. For example, are the drawings of crouching, self-absorbed women voyeuristic intrusions or celebrations of privacy? And some questions, which now turn out to have straightforward answers, arise from conflicting accounts of how Degas lived his last decades. The answers to these, according to Kendall, are: Yes, he was chauvinist, anti-semitic and conservative. No, he was not a recluse, indeed at some periods even into the 1890s he seems to have had an almost Jamesian schedule of evening engagements. Yes, he could be rude and difficult – excusably so when he was threatened with visits from strangers or bores. He was also a tease who enjoyed the drama of his own irascibility. No, he did not hide his work from public view; he avoided one-man shows but exhibited, sold and exchanged pictures regularly and managed the market for them shrewdly. Even work that was not sold in his lifetime, like the sculpture, was not just hoarded. Much of it was used in the self-referential processes of his art, which involved all sorts of tracing, copying and duplication-with-variation.

There are a few creatures (the axolotl most famously) which have abandoned maturity and go on breeding, generation on generation, in a larval form. Degas’s late drawings, sculptures and paintings are like that. They have characteristics which suggest that they represent an intermediate stage, that they are studies preparing the way for a final, resolved work: repeated explorations of small variations on the same pose; nude figures which are later drawn clothed; strong, direct marks, often drawn over one another, as though embarked on a search for the right contour; single figures which are then combined with other single figures in compositions. But there is no final work; these drawings are it. The preliminary nude is not subservient to the clothed version, and the swiftest, most general version is not necessarily the earliest.

All this causes an acute awareness, on the part of the viewer, of the processes which went into the making of Degas’s drawings and paintings. The lines seem to feel out the form. They lead you to imagine what it would physically feel like to make the marks, rather than what it would be like to look at what was being drawn. The blank sheet or canvas which is marked and remarked until it becomes an image can, at each stage of that process, be offered up as finished work. Whether or not a Degas pastel was finished was a matter of opinion. Degas himself was notorious for wanting to go on working on pictures. He had an itch to retrieve ones he had sold in order to do more to them – at least once managing to destroy what he meant to make perfect. From the beginning of his career he had had difficulty in bringing work to a final resolution; at the end of it, the very notion of completion seems irrelevant. Some pastels which were signed and sold seem less complete than others which were not.

Degas carried into the 20th century a tradition of picture-making that looked to the past for confirmation of the correctness of its procedures. Kendall suggests that even the late pastels have an echo of the traditional sequence of processes by which an oil painting was made: drawing, monochrome under-painting, and, finally, the addition of layers of paint of varying degrees of transparency. In the pastels a monochrome drawing in charcoal underlies layers of coloured shading and hatching.

These late pictures are, on the whole, of bodies not of persons. The faces are turned away, hidden by falling hair or represented with a few strokes or smudges. The body-type varies very little – the women are neither old nor young, fat nor thin. They seem fit, but not muscular. Their bodies, pale when you are made aware of skin colour, look as though they are uncovered only to be washed or reclothed. There is no Renoir glow about them. Few pictures of naked bodies are entirely asexual, but these come close to it. There is none of the sensual authority of a Titian Venus or the luxurious intimacy of a Delacroix odalisque. You do not wonder what it would be like to touch them, you are too aware, looking at them, of what it feels like for a person to touch themselves – what it feels like to twist your body to dry your back, to balance on one foot and look for a thorn in the other.

The poses are sometimes awkward – that is to say they show people doing awkward things. The bathing pictures, in particular, give a sense of being true accounts of bodies; this depends not so much on the fact that they are pictorially correct in terms of tone and perspective, as that they feel right, when your muscles and joints remember the movements and positions that the pictures show. An aspect of this kinetic reality, which Degas pursued throughout his life, was the contrast between private, unembarrassed ways of standing and moving, and formal ways of doing these things. In his pictures of dancers he was able to contrast the two ways of moving and standing in the same subjects. The girls performing on the stage make choreographers’ gestures – elegant, formal (and, like the gait of a trained carriage-horse, un-animal-like). Resting, legs apart, stretching a stiff back, tying a ballet shoe, they become, by contrast, more animal-like than we are used to noticing. If you want to see the contrast on television watch any international gymnastics competition. The young girls, physically very like Degas’s sculpture of the Little Dancer of 14 Years, take up poses on the mat which have their origin in ballet. They do their flips, jumps and cartwheels with military precision and, when they are done, walk flat-footed back to the bench to become the gawky, private and withdrawn individuals we recognise from Degas’s drawings.

Some find his kind of observation, particularly his paintings of women washing and drying themselves, a libel; it greatly disturbed some of his contemporaries and still disturbs people now. Tom Paulin on Late Review said things about the pictures at the National Gallery which would have won the agreement of conservative commentators in pre-1900 Paris, although they, looking back to Degas’s earlier work, would have said that the women, not the painter, were depraved. There have always been people who saw things differently. For them, because the women in Degas’s late pictures do not seem to be presenting themselves to be looked at, these works are an almost unique example of pictures of naked bodies which are both fleshly and erotically indifferent, neither misogynist nor etherialised nor suitable subjects for fantasies of possession. Kendall makes two relevant points here. First, that many of these pictures were bought in Degas’s lifetime by women. Second, by comparing Degas nudes with drawings by his contemporaries of dancers with their protectors, women undressing and so on, that Degas’s drawings are utterly different in their effect from items in that erotic sub-genre.

The year after a forest has been felled the ground is covered with a flush of opportunistic flowers. A few years later they have been suppressed by the shade of new undergrowth. Their short, brilliant occupation depends both on the mature trees having existed and on their having gone. Degas’s late work could not have existed without his immersion in the tradition of David and Ingres, neither could it have flourished within their shade. Kendall opens his catalogue with a remark made by Renoir: ‘If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more: it is after his fiftieth year that his work broadened out and he really becomes Degas.’ If that fiftieth year had come only a couple of decades earlier he might never have achieved what he did. No painter today can quite imagine what it was like to look over that cleared ground: the tangled undergrowth is all around.

Some painters, and Degas was one of them, advance by emulation. Looking at the companion exhibition at the National Gallery, which deals with Degas as a collector, is like reading the other half of a correspondence. The tonal purity of the little Roman landscape by Corot was answered by a similar precision of notation in Degas’s early race-course and ballet-school pictures. The pinks and blues of a Gauguin flower piece are a suggestion which is endorsed in the colour-for-its-own-sake pinks, blues, greens and oranges of the pastels of dancers. His appetite and breadth of response were very wide – his collecting shows this – and one comes to read his complaints of his own inadequacy as a confession of the impossibility of absorbing and combining aspects of all the work he admired.

There was, to start with, the problem of reconciling tonal and linear methods of representation. In one classical tradition – represented in Degas’s collection by the work of Ingres – drawing was a kind of Platonic truth (‘the probity of art’, Ingres called it) which underlay, literally, the tonal continuum of the painted surface. This way of working – from particular studies to generalised beautiful bodies and landscapes – went along with a Grand Manner in which all was made noble, flowing, balanced – and, eventually, all too often, dead and boring. Degas attempted at least one remarkable picture in this mode – Young Spartans. He failed to realise his intentions, not because of a lack of skill but because of a sardonic, visual intelligence which would not let him paint tosh.

One way of getting to grips with that intelligence is to consider work by observers of modern life, like Gavarni and Keene (of whom Degas was an avid collector). Their lithographs and drawings did for gesture, dress and movement what Corot did for tone. Once you had seen that kind of truth the poses of studio models who imitated the poses of ancient sculpture must have seemed stale. (Miniature cameras and the pictures people like Cartier-Bresson took with them had, for a while, a similar effect on fashion and other studio photography.) So Degas’s young Spartans, drawn without the suavity and decorum the academic tradition demanded, seem too real for the tradition that the painting aspires to. The painting is wonderful but unresolved, like many of Degas’s pictures not so much unfinished as unfinishable, a work without closure.

Drawn lines and brushstrokes are objects with their own purely calligraphic life. They also stand for parts of things. When coloured they carry information about hue and tone, in their linear aspect they define contours and the direction of surfaces. In Impressionist paintings of the purest sort the linear information given by any single brushstroke is very limited. It is essentially just a colour-carrying mark. The single line in a Degas drawing which outlines a back or a leg is, by comparison, loaded with information. Colour – not needed here to describe what is seen – can be abandoned or allowed to make its own, in a sense abstract statement. Degas took this way of using colour to an extreme when he produced series of paintings in what a fabric designer would call different colour-ways.

Look at a late charcoal drawing – for example, one of those of nude dancers standing by and sitting on a low bench. There is meaning in the subject-matter, meaning in the gestures the women make, meaning in the weight of the lines themselves. The total energy of the drawing is the sum of the energy generated by all these meanings, and there are trade-offs between them. Another artist Degas collected was Daumier – both his paintings and his prints. Daumier’s drawing is more vigorous than that of Gavarni, but because of that his people become Daumier-people; Gavarni’s are both more recognisable and less alive (the difference is rather like that between Dickens’s characters and Trollope’s). Late Degas is more Daumier-like in this sense than early Degas; in the end the personality of the individual models is absorbed by the character of line.

The exhibition’s title – Degas beyond Impressionism – suggests we are seeing a post-Impressionist Degas. This can confuse, because although Degas was an Impressionist and exhibited with them, ‘Impressionist’, if one defines it in terms of, say, Monet’s practice in his series pictures, is a description which hardly fits him at all. He rarely painted out of doors and was generally rude about landscape painting; he believed in premeditation and construction and was sceptical of the worth of spontaneous records of what nature threw in your way. He was a radical conservative whose work can be read as a campaign of intelligent exploration and invention, and as related in direct ways to the practice of both Ingres and Cézanne, to the look of paintings by Gauguin and by Daumier.

The late works show Degas creating an art of picture-making which subverts the challenge of photography by using it as an aid in inventing images which photography itself cannot match. He sidesteps the demand for finish by selling to new kinds of collector through a new kind of dealer. He engages, by way of an academic discipline – drawing from life – with a tradition which he could be seen as undermining. In this his work was more subversive of academic smugness than an attack which looked for completely new roots could have been. Another current exhibition – of French 19th-century drawings at the British Museum[*] – has, as well as drawings by Degas, a rather feeble nude by Bouguereau. To see them together is to know that Degas was the true traditionalist, the inheritor of the spirit of Titian. Impressionism was about depicting modern life. This, too, was abandoned by Degas in his late work. It is not just a narrowing of subject-matter. The dancers are still there, but no longer lit by footlights. The black-suited male admirers have gone, as has the stage scenery. Why sacrifice these particularities? In order, it seems, that colour can be colour and not light, and the shapes of the backs and legs and arms of ordinary girls can be the occasion of statements about backs and arms in general. All the early perfections and delicacies of touch which failing eyesight, withdrawal from the world, or a desire for a less anecdotal art had made Degas abandon, went in a good cause. His late pictures persuade you that the highest drama in art is in its making, and that the two decades the old man spent in his attic studio were a triumphant test on a heroic scale of a way of looking and a way of making.

[*] Nineteenth-Century French Drawing from the British Museum, at the British Museum until 15 September.