I’ll admit, I didn’t know a lot about the artist Edgar Degas except that he was best known for paintings and sculptures of ballerinas. After previewing the Denver Art Museum’s new exhibit, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, I can say I have much better insight into the artist and why so many of his works are in-the-process moments in life.
The Denver Art Museum is the only U.S. venue for the exhibit of more than 100 works consisting of paintings, drawings, pastels, etchings, monotypes and sculptures in bronze. After it leaves Denver, the works will scatter, back to their various collectors. So this is a rarity not to be missed. Rather than just show off some of the works Degas is most famous for, the Denver Art Museum looks into the mind of the artist and man, examining his obsessions and processes via his studio.
Curater Timothy J. Standring says the creation of the exhibit was similar to making a movie with eight different story scenes. “The first are recognizable about what people know about Degas,” he says. “But then there are surprises about what people don’t know.”
Here are some of the interesting things I learned while touring the exhibit:
- Degas studied to become a lawyer to keep his family happy but he didn’t like it. He told his father he wanted to be an artist. His father was encouraging and said if he was going to do that, he must study the masters first. One of the first rooms of this exhibit shows Degas’ efforts not to copy the masters but to learn from them.
- He wasn’t interested in selling his art. He called his pieces “articles.”
- A portion of the exhibit shows a model of his attic “laboratory,” his studio which was unkempt and cluttered.
- As he aged, Degas’ eyesight deteriorated. He didn’t like to admit this and blamed it on other things. He claimed the light in New Orleans was too bright for his eyes and left.
- “He was gregarious, outspoken and a curmudgeon in public but didn’t like people to watch him work,” says Standring.
- Degas was fascinated by horses. There is an entire room of the exhibit devoted to sketches, paintings and sculptures of them. They were one of his obsessions that he never got tired of trying to capture in his art.
- Degas wasn’t about the finished piece. He sought perfection through repetition. When you see his works that seem to be unfinished, they really aren’t. He wanted the viewer to mentally complete the work of art. “He engages our imagination,” says Standring. “He wanted people to see the process. He worked on over 25 different states of painting. He didn’t want to stop. He wanted to continue manipulating things.” This is also shown by Degas’ use of various types of media and subjectmatter. Christoph Heinrich, Director of the Denver Art Museum feels the in-process works lend “an incredible openness.” “Movement was a big thing for Degas,” says Heinrich. “Being caught in the moment – it’s so anti-academic. It’s all indicative of how infections these works are which makes us want to talk about them.”
- Heinrich told me he felt chalks and pastels were probably Degas’ favorite medium because of the direct hand-to-medium connection he could have, rather than a paintbrush. He was much more connected to the work when using them. I wonder if it was also because of the temporary nature of chalks and pastels too.
- Some of Degas’ works in the exhibit look like oil paintings but they are actually chalks or pastels that he mixed with water or oil to “liquify” them. An Italian artist taught Degas how to make a fixative. He’d apply that but then draw over it again and use the fixative again. You’ll see, these works blur the line between drawing and painting, some looking really luscious.
- He was interested in simple movements like ballerinas pulling up their tights. There is a parallel between his subjects being in-the-process of activities and him, as an artist, revelling in-the-process.
- Degas was a commercial success. He only started selling his works when his family’s business started to fail and he wanted to contribute. Until that time, selling his works was not a priority. I can’t help but think of Vincent Van Gogh who was so distraught that his works didn’t sell. What he wouldn’t have given to be in the position Degas was in!
- In the last five years of Degas’ life, he stopped making 2-dimensional works. He turned more to sculpture because it was more tactile.
Degas: A Passion for Perfection runs February 11-May 20, 2018. It is a ticketed exhibition (members are half price) and includes an audio guide. As usual, there is an audio version for adults and one for kids. I encourage you to listen to both because they each lend a different perspective. The kids’ one is “narrated” by Degas’ fictitious niece. For more information about the exhibit, visit the Denver Art Museum’s website, www.denverartmuseum.org.
We found this charming book geared toward children about the little girl who inspired Degas, Degas and the Little Dancer. We’ve linked to it here on Amazon. InGoodTasteDenver.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com