I love going to the NGV. Even as you approach the building, the glass waterfall at the entrance makes for an inviting composition, curtained in with minimalist brick walls. The elegant yet earthy welcome is underscored by the always-friendly, impeccable staff in every facet of the gallery. Combined with a world-class quality exhibition, it makes for a very satisfying experience indeed.
The featured “Winter Masterpieces” exhibition on Edgar Degas, Degas: A New Vision, leaves nothing left to be desired – apart from seeing the rest of his many, many works! This exhibition is class, intelligence and elegant curating all rolled into an engaging experience of a prolific, sometimes controversial, and undeniably staple of an artist.
Curated by Henri Loyrette (a former director of Musée d’Orsay and Musée du Louvre, and a Degas specialist), it is the largest collection of Degas’s works ever to come to Australia. The exhibition traces Degas’s early work (mostly of family portraits), history paintings, Italian period, and American period, moving then into thematic series (horse races, café scenes, brothels, ballet images, bathers, and photography). But don’t let the scope of the exhibition fool you! It is by no means superficial. On the contrary, it is every bit as detailed and thoughtful as the artist’s own depth of study into each subject.
It is nice having the artwork at eye level for the viewer – we get the most out of it that way. I like to see the details of the brushwork, the tonal changes in the pastels, and a healthy mix of framing styles. This is fitting for Degas, who designed frames for many of his works. Given the volatile history of Degas’s frames, there are not many in their original surrounds. (Only two, in fact!) But I would have liked to see that information on the description cards, to enhance the understanding of the artist’s work. After all, frames were often changed without the artist’s approval, and only a handful of Degas’s works today actually contain their original frames.
“One must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement.” [Edgar Degas]
The depth of Degas’s commitment to his art is what ends up overwhelming his audience. The oeuvre of this artist is almost unbelievable! And this exhibition communicates this to a T. As you journey through the halls, don’t forget to look up above the works. Degas’s own thoughts are printed on the walls, as if to give us a little bit of an insight into the man behind the art. Do you enjoy a journey through an artist’s diary? Then you’ll love this one! Also, having the quotes positioned high above, it fills the space vertically, and challenges the audience to look in every direction. Seems fitting, given the artist’s persistent study of his subjects and his love of 3D art. By the way, if you love sculpture, you will find a large selection of Degas’s bronzes – mostly of horses and bathing women.
My personal favourites? The Tub (Le Tub, 1888-89, cast 1919-32 bronze) showing a bather perfectly fitting into the tub, submerged sensually into the water. In a Café, or The Absinthe Drinker (Dans un Café, ou L’Absinthe, 1875-76) epitomises the café culture of the social Parisians of the late 19th century. Theatre Box (La Loge, 1880) is a beautiful juxtaposition of being seen and getting lost. (Love the comedy of a woman’s head peering over the top of an elaborate loge.) Dancers constitute a third of Degas’s oeuvre, and Dancers: Fan design (Danseuses: Éventail, 1879) is a unique example of a gouache, pastel and oil painting on silk framed in the shape of a chorus girl’s fan. For horse lovers, there are ample bronze sculptures of the animals frozen in action, defying gravity. And finally, Degas’s touching portrayals of his family members gives a visual insight into his beginnings as an artist, as well as into his relationships with his relatives. I especially loved Degas’s father listening to Lorenzo Pagans playing the guitar (La Pére de Degas écoutant Lorenzo Pagans, after 1874), capturing a little bit of Parisian life (the fashionable Spanish entertainment and musical afternoons attended by other artists) in an intimate, personal setting.
If you don’t know anything about Degas – you will learn lots! And if are familiar with this artist’s work and life, then be prepared to be overwhelmed – and, please, give yourself a good few hours to take it all in.
The exhibition will run until 18th September 2016, NGV, Melbourne.