Celebrating the most significant Impressionist artist to introduce the concept of movement in paintings, the current AGA exhibition, Edgar Degas: Figures in Motion, focuses specifically on the transformation of movement in the living form.
Image credit: Edgar Degas, Two Dancers, c. 1896-99, Pastel, 16 ¼ x 13 inches. Private Collection.
Through examining Degas' sketches, sculptures, and drawings, Figures in Motion traces Degas's progression as an artist from his early days at the horse races to his countless days and nights at the Paris Opera cavorting with dancers and the social elite, to touching upon his reclusive mid-life spent largely with the street life of post-Haussmann Paris, notably in the brothels.
Organized by Degas specialist Joseph S. Czestochowski, the show as a whole focuses particularly on the artists' posthumously made bronze sculptures. While Degas only exhibited one sculpture in his life time, "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen," which stands prominently on display along with a working study, the majority of Degas' sculptures were just that: studies of the body in motion.
Sharing a similar fascination with Edward Muybridge on the movement and grace of horses at the track, and predating Muybridge's 24 camera/photography experiment to capture a horse in motion, Degas was drawn to the horse within the context of the races, a social pastime of convening crowds. It is arguable that his desire to represent motion was also to understand it, as the turn of the 19th century was the era where the pace of the urban came to fruition.
Turning more towards the city and its nightlife, Degas' preoccupation with studying ballerinas progressed from studies of arabesque poses to fleeting, natural moments, as seen with "Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot." As a contrast to how lines form as the human body moves, the lively and awkward "Dancer Looking ..." is the complete opposite to the arabesque poses with their perfectly symmetrical outstretched back leg and elongated line. Looking over the body of Degas' work, it is evident he preferred sketching his dancers in unstructured poses and moments of rest, rendering feverish lines in naturalized movements.
Image credit: Edgar Degas, After the Bath, c.1899, Pastel on paper. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Gift of Ferdinand Howald
Like the evolution of the dancer's body from ballet to modern and contemporary dance, Degas' line also becomes less rigid as he turns his focus from the studios of ballerinas to the toilettes of working-class women.
Revered and reviled in its time, Degas's series on women bathers was scandalous not because of the nudity, but because he chose to focus on lower- and middle-class women, almost all of them prostitutes. His "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen" of Marie van Goethem was similarly criticized for not idealizing the girl, showing her as a "flower of the gutter," as one critic put it, with her hands coyly held back, back arching and chin up, confrontational and brash in stance. Although often read as misogynist, Degas, especially in the latter half of his career, successfully contributed to the demystification of the female form in art.
"After the Bath," the only coloured pastel from the bathers series in this exhibition, is consistent with Degas's favoured perspective of facing the bather's back as she is either rising from the bath or drying herself off. The relaxed body comes alive from the tactile pastel of energetic blues and greens emanating from the light of water and competing with the warmth of flesh and life.
Image credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Bathers" 1884-1887
Responding directly to contemporaries such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose works such as "The Bathers" or "Bather Arranging Her Hair" depicted Venus-like coquettish women in idyllic, pastoral settings frolicking like cherubic angels, Degas in contrast paints his faceless bathers in almost decaying hues of mortal flesh, forgoing the ivory representation of feminity with the natural hues of blood and veins.
Greatly influenced by the city he lived in, a changing Paris where class structures were quickly disappearing in favour of the modern life, Degas' fascination with the excitement of movement, be it at the race track or the Paris Opera, eventually found satisfaction with observing the people of the streets, where the energy of any city breathes
*First published in Vue Weekly