Art News & Views

Beauty of Unguarded Moments


Boston. A series of monotypes, which were not intended by Degas for public exhibition, depicts scenes in Paris brothels. Boston is the only US venue for Degas and the Nude. The exhibition runs through February 5, 2012. It will reopen at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (March 12 to July 1, 2012). The nude figure was typical to the art of Edgar Degas from the beginning of his career in the 1850s until the end of his working life, but the subject has never before been explored in a Museum exhibition. It is co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, featuring paintings, pastels, drawings, prints, and sculpture, and calling attention to the evolution of the treatment of the nude.

The show was conceived by George T. M. Shackelford, chair, Art of Europe and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA, who co-organized the exhibition with Xavier Rey, Curator of Paintings, Musée d'Orsay. The Musée d'Orsay contributed 60 works to the exhibition, the most from a single source.

The multimedia guide for the exhibition includes video of pastel and printmaking techniques, plus perspectives from a figure model, a pastel artist, and others. With extensive commentary by curator George Shackelford, the guide is narrated by Amanda Palmer, singer/songwriter and formerly of The Dresden Dolls.

This show brings together over a hundred of Edgar Degas's women. His addiction to views, usually from behind, of women in oblivious, intimate actions, such as bathing, drying themselves, or combing their hair, evaded the carnal dimension. In one of his works a woman examines her raised foot while perched precariously on the other. The position is complex, unusual, and contorted. Is she a dancer or a bather inspecting her foot? Why? We don't know. Faces, seen rarely, are stony or cartoonish.

The show begins with academic figure drawings and two early history paintings, “Young Spartans Exercising” and “Scene of War in the Middle Ages.” The latter depicts dead girls littering the ground, wandering, or tied to trees. The painting could have been a commentary on the American Civil War then underway, Shackelford surmises, or simply a general comment on men's inhumanity toward women during times of war. The female figures' prostration and nudity, in contrast to the armored males on horseback, emphasizes their vulnerability.

From the 1870s until about 10 years before his death in 1917, Degas knocked out one magnificently drawn, gauchely posed female nude after another. Only the means and the materials changed - charcoal, pastel, paint, monotype, lithograph, clay, pastel on monotype, and so on. Degas showed with the Impressionists but he rejected the label for himself. Of the approximately 165 works, 145 are by Degas himself, created over more than 50 years. It exposes the roots of Degas's sensibility with apposite works by Ingres, Delacroix, Goya, and Japanese printmakers. Also in the show, paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Gauguin, Bonnard, Matisse, and Picasso demonstrate Degas' spell on younger artists. The show yields an immersive sense of early modern art as a tidal wave of a prominent genius.

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