Monday, October 10, 2011

Degas and the Nude at the MFA

Degas and the Nude, the utterly absorbing retrospective at the MFA through February 5th, contains no "official" self-portrait by the complicated French genius.

And yet at the same time it's all a self-portrait, of both the most ravishing and troubling kind.

And one I believe has been long overdue.  Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas was an artist who has always been admired, but has often been relegated to the margins of post-Impressionism.  Today, however, he has become mysteriously relevant to us again; shows on aspects of his art keep popping up, and a sense that he was far more than a worshipper at the altar of ballet has taken hold in the public mind. Still, appreciation of his work has long been hobbled - not inappropriately - by reservations regarding his personality and politics.  Degas was eccentric, reclusive, sexually complex, and politically conservative - and for all his refinement, he was horrifyingly anti-Semitic; a classic moneyed French Catholic of his period, in fact (he even refused to hire Protestant - much less Jewish! - models).

Yet he was also undeniably a dazzling artist.  His portraits are as subtle and insightful as those of an old master - and yet he was stunningly innovative in terms of composition and color.  He seized on the tonal brilliancies of the Impressionists (of whom he was a prickly associate) and pushed them to extremes, all while transporting their casual ethos into a new realm of skewed - yet carefully calibrated - pictorial design (indeed, well before the hand-held camera existed, Degas had essentially mapped its point of view).

But the MFA show (as you might guess from its title) focuses on a single facet of the artist's career: his relationship to the nude, particularly the female nude -  a connection which proves as knotty as anything else in his challenging oeuvre. Organized by the MFA’s George Shackelford, in partnership with Xavier Rey of the Musée d'Orsay (a source of many of the exhibit's works, and its lone tour stop after Boston), this subtly argued and almost exhaustive show attempts to offer a context for its subject's achievement in the genre, while at the same time positing a psycho-biography to explain how that achievement developed from his near-obsession with the female form.

But at least at first, Degas wasn't all about the girls.  He was determined from an early age to be an artist, and Degas and the Nude opens with a series of studies (like that of the male model at left) completed as training for what he hoped would prove a successful career as a history painter.

But it's clear from these early pieces, delicately rendered as they are, that Degas wasn't a natural at life portraiture.  You can feel all the deliberation and care that went into their production - they're far from tossed-off - an impression only reinforced by the paintings that followed, such as Young Spartans Exercising (below).  The individual figures here look carefully considered, yet they seem to elbow each other in an awkward pictorial space.  At the same time, the composition bristles with energy, enhanced by its high-key color.  It's a strange, slightly unsettling picture.

Young Spartans Exercising, 1860
There's a curious sexual edge to it as well. Rarely in the world of art are women depicted as taunting naked men (or boys in this case) - and both sexes are sketched in a brutal, almost animalistic style (one boy is actually on all fours).  A similar sexual tension is perceptible - and even more disturbing - in a later historical painting, Scene of War in the Middle Ages - in which soldiers high on horseback calmly spear several nude women, whose ravaged bodies are depicted with  clinical precision.  No more taunts from them, I guess.

And then there's what must count as the creepiest painting Degas ever made - Interior (below), which has haunted viewers since the first day it was displayed.  When the artist was asked what interior, precisely, the image was intended to depict, he simply replied "My interior," and the sense is inescapable that deep psychological issues are at work in the menacing tableau he has constructed.

Tellingly, the picture has sometimes been referred to as "The Rape," no doubt because of its oppressive atmosphere of sexual threat.  The woman to the left cowers in her chair - perhaps as she has been instructed to - her shoulder and back partially exposed.  A blouse or undergarment lies at the center of the painting; she has either disrobed, or it has been torn from her; and what might be a small trousseau or jewel box - perhaps a symbol of her sexual self (or soul?) - has been opened and ransacked.  Yet the white linens of her bed nevertheless look undisturbed and virginal in the corner; she is both ravaged and untouched.  We half-wonder whether what we are looking at is a commercial transaction - or a private ritual.

Interior, 1868-69
Meanwhile the dark male figure on the opposite side of the canvas is strangely inert.  He stares at the woman intently, but hardly seems poised to attack; indeed, there's something brooding and inward about his gaze, and his hands are plunged in his pockets; Degas seems to hint he may be masturbating.

So we're looking at a voyeur, not a rapist; but this is voyeurism sans any smirk - and almost as an essay in fascinated repulsion.  For the object of this gentleman's "affection" is depicted without a shred of allure - the patch of skin she reveals is pathetic in erotic terms, and the poor girl can't bring herself to participate in her objectification; instead she bows powerlessly before it.  And yet she has one form of power - her bare shoulder alone is enough to do the trick, to turn the key in her observer's psychological lock.  That this arouses as much disgust as desire in him seems to be the actual topic of the painting.  (The same morbidity may have tinged how Degas felt about his own sex - in another male nude, below, the body is portrayed as almost corpse-like - and yet the phallus looks semi-aroused.)

Male Nude, 1856
All of these themes and effects will be repeated again and again throughout Degas and the Nude - indeed, Interior (the exhibit seems to imply) may be the source point, the ur-painting, for this entire branch of the artist's output.  For once Degas had ditched the historical genre (even he could tell it wasn't working) to explore his own predilections, he would return again and again to the exact same pose - the woman turned away, faceless, revealing her back and sometimes buttocks, just as an animal might before the sex act (yes, the underlying implications of the image are that crude).  And Degas' obsession with the subject makes it easy to conflate the artist's own psyche with that of the shadowed protagonist of Interior.  What changes, however, over the course of the artist's life, is his transformation of this fetish-like material - the key in the secret sexual lock - into a meditation of poignantly blossoming beauty.

The Serious Client, 1877
But first the exhibit takes a short, but crucial, detour into Degas' notorious brothel monotypes - sketches, done in ink on metal plates, of life in the demi-monde of the Paris bordello (then a perfectly legal business).  Here again (at left, and top) we feel the animality of Young Spartans Exercising - only uncomplicated by the essential beauty of the athlete.  Degas' sex workers are instead indolent grotesques, lolling about in nothing but shoes and stockings, or indulging in a blurry bit of cunnilingus in order to nail a sale (in case you haven't figured this out yet, you may not want to take the kids to this show).  (Btw, "The Serious Client," at left, looks like another un-admitted self-portrait by the artist, if you ask me.)

Which isn't to say these works are entirely cold - and they're hardly misogynistic; indeed, several are wryly sympathetic toward the facts of "the life," as it's called.  (Alas, the most astute and complex of these monotypes, "The Madame on Her Name-Day" is not included in this set, more's the pity.)  In the end, we sense in the bordello sketches the disgust of Interior transposed to a more complicated milieu in which melancholy and comedy are intertwined.

Nude Woman Combing Her Hair, 1877-83
Simultaneously, a new emotional and aesthetic trope enters the artist's contemplation of the nude.  During Degas' bordello period, it became law that prostitutes be required to wash themselves between customers (let's not think about what went on before that particular regulation!), and Degas began to portray his subjects bathing more and more often (at right).

And the resulting imagery - of sex cleansed and the woman made pure again - seems to have unfettered something in him psychologically and artistically.  His sketches burgeon in size, and a rough but pungent lyricism begins to sound through images like Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (at left) and especially the erotic jumble of The Fireside.  Indeed, by the time of the giant Nude Woman Drying Herself (below), a kind of joyful chaos has taken over the canvas - the subject's action seems to be scrubbing clean the whole soiled world around her; this may be the most liberated - and liberating - image Degas ever created.

Nude Woman Drying Herself, 1884-92

This being Degas, however, we know the break-out chaos of Nude Woman Drying Herself can reign only for a moment; soon the artist's superb sense of control is back - only this time it brings his superb sense of color with it (and Degas was one of the greatest colorists who ever lived - just ask Gauguin!).  For which we are humbly grateful - for once Degas picks up his pastels, the rest of Degas and the Nude plays out as a sublime rush of pictorial pleasure, rendered in a ravishing hand.

La Toilette, 1884-86
The light in his pictures immediately grows gentler, even as his colors ripen; the artist's self-loathing seems tamed, even as his contempt for his subjects evaporates like the steam we imagine softened these scenes. And with this shift in tone, the whore at the center of Degas' sexual complex is transformed into a new Diana, even a worldly madonna, as she baptizes herself again and again at her secret spring - or rather its secular equivalent (left), the humble domestic tub.

There's an attempt at the MFA to pretend that these more sensual women are individually expressive, which I'm afraid I think is a bit foolish - these models are not intended as persons but representatives of a type; indeed, they're all sisters of the poor girl in Interior (their hair is even the same Titian-red as hers).   And perhaps tellingly, the actual water in the tub often seems to be an afterthought; sometimes the bowl even looks empty; this is a spiritual ablution we're watching, and thus the vessels in play are filled with, and exchanging, a pearly luminescence, a simulacrum of sanctity, rather than any actual eau.

After the Bath, 1890-96
Thus Degas' nudes operate as both spiritual and sexual fetishes - a new kind of Catholic icon, if you will, with a hidden intellectual armature born of steady self-examination (thus a Renoir nude set next to one of Degas' looks like a pin-up by comparison).   Not that the artist is satisfied with his newfound formula - indeed, frustrated impulses from his older, colder dispensation begin to work their way back into his work.  There's always a certain roughness to his execution throughout the series - a grit in the pastels that grounds us. As time goes on, however, the poses of the models grow more extended, and the drawn line gets rougher, even as the colors inch toward the garish (at bottom).   He can't really leave the whore - or his buried resentment of her - entirely behind.

And a kind of clinical hauteur, a form of surgeon's arrogance, never really disappears from Degas, either.  You can feel it in the many sculptures and sketches of ballerinas included in this show: before he could embark on a finished work, Degas had to strip down his ballerinas and play with them like puppets.  All artists must work this way to some degree, of course, yet there's a chill to Degas' studies that is a bit unusual (you can feel the same stance in his great Duchessa di Montejasi with Her Daughters, also at the MFA, in which sorrow is rendered utterly without pity).

Perhaps, however, the subliminal psycho-analysis offered by Degas and the Nude lifts the curtain a bit on his disposition, and helps us understand it - although I know, I know, psycho-biographers are prone to simplify, and every exhibition, both intentionally and unintentionally, censors and shapes its subject (and leaves something extremely important out).  Still, the basic contours of the argument here strike me as accurate enough.  And an image of the aging artist that closes the show only seems to ratify its thesis - Degas actually photographed himself gazing with wry self-awareness at a sculpture of a woman styled much like one of his pastels: she is bowed down, her face hidden, her back and buttocks exposed to the viewer.  The supposed subject is lamentation, but Degas' expression lets you know he's aware of a certain familiar subtext to her pose.  Yes, something tells me the old master understood himself at least as well as his critics.

After the Bath, 1896

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