First full Edgar Degas retrospective in nearly 30 years shows an artist who liked to be in control

In Photo: In this detail from Rehearsal hall at the Opera, rue Le Peletier (1872), the ballet master instructs his dancer, much the way Degas controlled his art.

By Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

FOR today’s art, does Edgar Degas matter?

That’s the question at the heart of a large and fascinating retrospective exhibition newly opened at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Houston, Texas, and will be on view through January 16, 2017. The unsurprising answer being offered is yes—unsurprising because who would mount a complex show to assert irrelevance? Yet, the ways in which his art is shown to be relevant for contemporary culture are unexpected.

Degas died 99 years ago at the age of 83. At the brink of his death’s centennial, his work is never far from the art museum limelight, given the continuing popularity of French Impressionism. Shows in recent decades have focused on a variety of facets—themes, such as working women and horse racing; his experiments with monotype printing; a brief, but intense, flirtation with photography; the dynamic physicality of ballet (of course); nude bathers; the place of pastels and sculpture within his large body of work; and more.

So it is something of a surprise to realize that there has not been a full Degas retrospective in more than a generation. Degas was prolific, and a 1988 retrospective went a long way toward untangling his very knotty chronology.

Curator Henri Loyrette, then at Paris’s Musee d’Orsay, was part of that show’s organizing team. He has returned almost 30 years later to organize Degas: A New Vision, which had its debut in June at Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. (His 1988 cocurator, Gary Tinterow, is today director of the Houston museum, which is the only American stop on the show’s tour.) All of the new scholarly fire power accumulated over the last three decades has been brought to bear.

One result is the most text-heavy exhibition I’ve seen in recent memory. With few exceptions, each of about 200 works in the sprawling show is accompanied by an extended label. Far from the usual patronizing annoyance, these texts are unfailingly well-written and perceptive, a useful pleasure to read.

Loyrette knows his subject well. So well that the premise of his exhibition is quite simple: Degas immersed himself in the rigorous demands of an ambitious artist in mid-19th century Paris—then, when he was almost 40, began to turn those rules upside-down. The show is a demonstration, step by step, laid out in 10 large chronological galleries.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born a banker’s son, one of five children, in 1834. He revered the Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom he met while copying Old Masters in the Louvre, and he studied drawing at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, which was vigorously asserting itself as the sole avenue to artistic success. (Loyrette convincingly describes Degas as primarily a draftsman rather than a painter.) He traveled to Rome, as countless French artists before him did, and spent three years there studying antiquities and copying Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.

Degas came into an establishment art world that prized most highly the grand picture—the carefully conceived, rigorously executed, historically informed image that, following proven guidelines, would fully and with erudition encapsulate a definitive idea. And he chucked it all for an art that was provisional, topical, perpetually unfinished and ripe for revision—“open-ended”, as Loyrette succinctly puts it in the exhibition’s excellent catalog.

The preternatural precision of Degas’s drawing style is worthy of Ingres, although it gets steadily more casual in the figures’ poses and the touch of the artist’s hand as he gains control. And for Degas, control is a big deal—although not in the academic way. Most obvious is the nature of his interest in light. Almost alone among the impressionists, who painted outdoors in shifting sunshine, Degas worked in his studio rendering candlelight, fireplaces and gas lamps. In the studio, the environment was controlled.

Control is the powerful subject of the riveting ballet picture, Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier. Nothing but empty space fills the center, an optical void yawning between the lyrical primary dancer at the left-hand foreground and the ballet master and his observant cohorts in the diagonal middle ground at the right. The ballet master, hand raised and eyes fixed, confidently directs the ethereal young woman across the room.

Ballet is less a dance of continuous bodily motion than of static, extreme physical poses linked by fluid movement. The ballet master is a kind of proxy for Degas as artist, while the dancer is his art.

There is also a sexual undercurrent to the scene.

Parisian gentlemen, like wealthy men hanging around beauty pageants today, could acquire backstage access to ballet rehearsals. Degas put himself among them.

The backstage power dynamic turns up again 20 years later. The 1890s saw extraordinary paintings and pastels of nude women in contorted positions as they enter a bathtub or comb their hair—women often presumed to be sex workers in brothels. An element of voyeurism courses through the work. Perhaps, it descended from the common Old Master subject of Susanna at her Bath, secretly being ogled by old men.

But these nudes are hardly classical figures, just as the awkward, rough-hewn waif who posed for the famous mixed-media sculpture of the little fourteen-year-old dancer is not one of mythological history’s idealized Three Graces, fixed for all eternity. Such works are emblematic of Loyrette’s contention that Degas is modern partly because his images are fragmentary, never fully resolved. Another angle is always available to explore.

‘’There must always be some mystery left,’’ Degas liked to say. Artistic process, in other words, is celebrated.

The 1988 Degas retrospective showed his then poorly understood work to be indispensable. This one raises his standing further still.

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