He’s often thrown into the same group as the Impressionists, but DEGAS’ methods couldn’t have been more different. Words: Helen Monaghan
dgar Degas was different
from the rest of the
Impressionist artists. For one thing. despite being a founding member of the group. he didn’t consider himself one. preferring the label of realist. lle disliked the fresh. open air world painted by Monet and Renoir. In Degas‘ world. paintings were populated with people. from his portrait of his Italian relatives to the seemingly spontaneous depictions of ballet dancers Iimbering up as they wait in the wings. He was like a photographer. stealing a moment in time. catching people unawares. But no matter how off- the-cuff these compositions seem. he produced them from sketches. from memory and from models under the artificial light of his studio. This was Degas‘ great talent.
The more you explore the work of the French painter. the more you discover how subversive. experimental and innovative he was. L’nlike poor old Monet who had to churn out paintings for financial survival. Degas wasn‘t short of a few bob. He could afford to be experimental. Born in 1834 into a rich Franco—Italian banking family. he attended the best schools and trained in the French classical tradition. (‘rucial to his artistic formation were his travels to Italy in I856. Ilerc he devoted long hours of study copying the masterpieces of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance. seen in the museums. galleries and churches in I‘lorence. Rome and Naples. including numerous preparatory drawings for his Italian family portrait 771v Br’l/c/li I’umi/y which he completed in 1867. After Degas returned to Paris in I859. he worked primarily on his history painting and portraits but by I870. he was painting his first images of the dancers and musicians of the Paris Opera.
Degas was hugely influential. particularly among a group of Italian painters: Giovanni Boldini. Federico '/.andomeneghi. Giuseppe de Nittis and sculptor Medardo Rosso. whose work will also be explored in the forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy Building. All four shared a common link with Degas. who inspired each of them to capture modern life.
Degas dedicated his career to depicting modern life. Iidmond de (ioncourt said of him: After many attempts and thrusts in every direction. he has fallen in love with modern subjects and has set his heart on laundry girls and danseuses . . . Of all the men I have seen engaged in depicting modern life. he is the one
‘DURING HIS LIFETIME HE DIDN'T FIT
Self-Portrait, c.1857-58 by Edgar Degas
who has most successfully rendered the inner nature ofthat life.‘
In his depictions of the ballet. Degas revealed life backstage: the workouts at the bar. dancers breathless with fatigue. killing time before a performance. At the races. he shows the horses and the jockeys pacing around before the off. He subverted the conventions of formal portraiture. so you had relaxed poses in family portraiture. Ile would privately create sculptures which were never cast tip apart from only one. The Lift/c Dancers .rl‘qr'r/ I'rmr‘lr‘r’ll (IXXI ). In the later pastel nudes of women washing and drying themselves. there‘s this almost voyeuristic quality. as though you‘re looking through the keyhole. And it is this keyhole aesthetic that gives his work such biting reality.
‘I think he was probably viewed as slightly incomprehensible by quite a few people.‘ says Michael ('Iarke. director of the National Galleries of Scotland. 'During his lifetime I don’t think he fitted into any convenient box and his subversiveness has become even more apparent after his death.”
Whether subversive or just innovative. perhaps he was merely ahead of his time.
Degas and the Italians in Paris opens at the Royal Scottish Academy Building, Edinburgh, Fri 12 Dec-Sun 29 Feb, £6.50 (£4.50).
Art editor Helen Monaghan selects her visual highs of the last 72 months
Monet may well have been the most talked about. the most hyped and the most visited exhibition of 2003. but the most amazing was the Boyle Family retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Seeing squares of the earth's surface. huge and imposing, hanging on the gallery walls was an unforgettable experience. From a section of a potato field to a Victorian tiled path. they look so realistic. it‘s hard to believe that they are made of fibreglass. Along with the earth pieces. the show documented the family's 40-year career, including early assemblages. the trippy. acid-fuelled films from the 603 and body works. This was the first ever retrospective dedicated to Mark Boyle et al. and one which i hope will be toured so that audiences across the UK and beyond can also be amazed by this most influential and inspiring family of artists.
New Facade by Toby Paterson
Toby Paterson had his first major solo show at the CCA in Glasgow. and boy. did he work hard for it. Every inch of the CCA galleries became part of the fabric of this unconventional installation. Ceilings were lowered in the first gallery. walls painted brown and architectural buildings and features were meticulously painted onto perspex. in another gallery was a chaotic abstract wall painting. resembling the colour palette and contours of an Alexander Calder mobile. Here Paterson excelled. Small paintings of architectural elements from a staircase to an architect's model became immersed in large blocks of pale blue. white. red. black and yellow paint. Relating to the 1951 Festival of Britain site on the South Bank and Silesia in Poland. he took elements of these two sites and breathed new life.
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