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.’

Edgar Degas, ‘Three Women at the Races’ (1885)
Edgar Degas, ‘Three Women at the Races’ (1885)

It is a chastening remark, because most of us, when in front of a picture, do not give the picture time enough to speak. We talk at it, about it, of it, to it; we want to forcibly understand it, get its measure, colonise it, ‘friend’ it. We compare it to other pictures it reminds us of; we read the label on the wall, confirm that it is, say, pastel on monotype, and check which gallery or plutocrat owns it. But unless we are highly trained, we don’t know enough to recognise more than roughly how the picture relates to the history of painting (because it always does, even if negatively). Instead, we hose it with words and move on.

The centenary year of Edgar Degas’s death might be a good time to rein in our chatter. Though Renard does not seem to have come across Degas, or commented on his work, the two had similar (and similarly only half-true) reputations: as bearish plain-speakers who preferred to be left alone. And Degas would have approved Renard’s verbal humility in the face of a picture. As he put it to George Moore:

Do you think you can explain the merits of a picture to those who do not see them? … I can find the best and clearest words to explain my meaning, and I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art, and they have not understood … but among people who understand, words are not necessary, you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.

In Degas’s opinion, ‘literature has only done harm to art’; writing about art only made artists more vain, and didn’t advance public taste. Those who went around ‘being artists’ might acquire fame, but what was the good of fame if it didn’t help the art? He despised those who chased honours and decorations. Degas was willing to forgive his old friend Manet the strange, boyish ambition of wanting to be recognised on every Parisian omnibus; but as he said scathingly to Whistler, ‘My dear friend, you conduct yourself in life just as if you had no talent at all.’

Zola was Manet’s great public promoter, and Manet returned the favour with a blazing portrait of the novelist. When Zola was asked his opinion of Degas, he grandly replied: ‘I cannot accept a man who shuts himself up all his life to draw a ballet-girl as ranking co-equal in dignity and power with Flaubert, Daudet and Goncourt.’ The disrespect was vigorously reciprocated: Degas thought the omnivorous Rougon-Macquart series amounted to little more than Zola ‘working his way through the Paris telephone directory’. But it went deeper than this. Degas’s opinions on fiction were private; Zola’s theories about art were public. And Degas took particular exception to Zola’s central belief that art was fundamentally an expression of ‘temperament’. As Valéry put it in Degas Danse Dessin, for Degas a work of art consisted of ‘an unspecified number of studies, followed by a series of operations’. Zola, for all his high naturalism, was a Romantic when it came to motivation; Degas essentially classical. And Degas further claimed that in creating the ambitious, all-sacrificing, and finally suicidal painter Claude Lantier, Zola was trying ‘to prove the great superiority of writers over artists’.

In matching painter to writer, we might presume that as Manet was to Zola, so Degas was to Mallarmé: hermetic, lofty, unpublic. But this only takes us so far: Degas valued Mallarmé’s friendship and company but thought his work ‘the fruit of a gentle disorder which had taken hold of a marvellously gifted poetic mind’. Valéry regarded Degas as a ‘pure artist’ who was ‘incredibly ignorant of everything in life that couldn’t either figure in a work, or serve it directly’. The diarist Harry Kessler put the same point differently, after meeting him in Paris in June 1907: ‘He looks like a distinguished grandfather, or rather the face is that of a man of the world – but the eye – the eye is that of an apostle untouched by the world.’ By this time Degas had become, as Valéry put it, ‘ever more farouche, absolutist and insupportable’. Or, in Kessler’s summary, at the end of that evening, ‘a fanatical, maniacal fool’.

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