Before us are the denizens of modern life. In this exhibition, which features treasures from Glasgow's Burrell Collection alongside some of the National Gallery’s best Degas works, Degas’ fraught and complex relationship with modernity is laid bare. The result is simply mesmerising.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, about 1883-6, pastel on tracing paper, 46.9 x 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.241), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Degas was amongst the first of the Impressionists to enhance his pale sitters with pastel. The tactile immediacy and luminous colours of pastel, as well as its ephemeral quality, allowed Degas to work quickly and efficiently. With pastel Degas captured the restless movements and fleeting gestures of his subjects with ease.
Indeed, in Degas’ later years pastel became the medium of choice. The carefully blended layers of his earlier pastels were replaced by dense build-ups of vibrant cross-hatchings and bold coloured highlights.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub, about 1896-1901, pastel on paper, 60.8 × 84.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.236) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Inevitably, many of the pastels on display are of dancers. By attending rehearsals or performances at The Paris Opera, Degas was able to scrutinize young female bodies in a range of complex repeated positions, from the graceful to the ungainly. Dancers at rest, on pointe, in the wings, with admirers, pirouetting and at the barre pepper the walls. In isolation, each pastel is an homage to movement, as an ensemble, they elucidate the sensuality of the female form.
But it’s the proximity of his dancers to his nude bathers in this exhibition that really unsettles. In these pastels, his dancers, like his bathers are bestowed with a carnal sexuality more often associated with his brothel monotypes. Looking from dancer to bather, it’s hard to escape Degas’ awkward voyeurism.
Constructed through the eyes of the observer, his subjects become our subject. Limbs caught at unflattering angles, bathing nudes bent double brushing their hair and plunging cleavages of dancers trussed in stiff tutus abound.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman at her Toilette, about 1897, pastel on canvas, 78.7 × 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.229) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Woman at her toilette, 1897, is amongst the sparest and most intimate of the pastels on display. Looking away from the artist and the viewer, she sponges her naked body. Caught in the most uncompromising of positions, she seems unaware of her voyeur. Uninhibited, her flowing red locks, her naked breasts and curved back are superbly sensual. The composition’s curvilinear lines and splashes of vibrant colour intoxicate. It’s easy to see why Degas has so oft been accused of voyeuristic misogyny.
But beyond the voyeur, lies the restless innovator; a man who continuously experimented with form, technique and medium. Degas observes, yes, but what he majestically reveals in these pastels is the city and the human body in a constant state of flux.
What we see, is a modern Degas rarely seen before.
|What||Degas: Drawn in Colour exhibition review, National Gallery|
|Where||National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
20 Sep 17 – 30 Apr 18, Saturday - Thursday 10:00 - 18:00, Friday 10:00 - 21:00
|Website||Click here for more details|