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Where Classicism Meets the Left Armpit

Degas Sculptures at the Fogg Throughout March

By Mark T. Whitaker

SOMETIME IN the early 1850s, a young, sharp-witted Paris aristocrat, more or less in training to take over the family banking business, declared to his father that he planned to cast aside the family expectations and enroll full time in an art studio. He had been frittering away his university career sketching copies of the masters in the Louvre, and had cultivated a special passion for the work of Ingres, the skillful draftsman whose flawless style dominated the fifties' neo-classical vogue.

So when his father finally gave in to his insistent artistic aspirations, Edgar-Hilaire-Germain de Gas (who, spurning the aristocratic connotations of the original, later changed his name to Degas) sought out his revered mentor. He asked Ingres what he should do to become a great painter, as if such advice could be capsulized into a brief rejoinder. But Ingres, never at a loss for a fast and memorable answer to bottomless questions like this, told Degas simply: "Draw lines, young man, many lines, from memory or from nature; it is in this way that you will become a good artist."

The unerring sense of line, of precise and premeditated artistic construction that Degas went on to develop subtly underlies all of the forty-odd pieces of Degas sculpture now on exhibit at the Fogg. Except for a few interesting but unexceptional busts and one bas-relief, practicing ballet dancers, race horses and women bathers--mostly emerging from tubs or toweling themselves off--make up the entire collection. These subjects, which Degas studied repeatedly throughout his career, gave the artist the chance to display his mastery of anatomy and apply his taste for classical design.

Yet they also--particularly the dancers and the bathers--gave him leeway to play fast and loose with neo-classical conservatism. He tested the capacity of elegant design to withstand challenging poses. With the dancers, Degas takes on very difficult ballet postures and flirts wtih disequilibrium. With the bathers--and some of the horses--he plays the voyeur, catching his subjects in ungainly and at times vulgar contortions. Yet throughout his eye for "arabesque" (a term borrowed from dance, meaning "overall pattern of line") prevails, and his statuettes withstand his often perverse challenges. It is as if Degas wanted to tease his audience by effecting the spontaneously off-kilter or maladroit, merely to vindicate an operating principle that he summed up once by saying, "Nothing in art must seem to be an accident, not even movement."

More than Degas' unfailing self-control comes across in these statuettes, though. Degas' was a classicism with a difference, and that difference was a caustic, often cruel, streak of irony. A few pieces in particular demonstrate this world-view. The first constitute a procession of "grands arabesques"--the term is used here in its technical sense, to mean a specific ballet position that dancers must do in three steps. They move from a relaxed stance with the left foot held out backward and the arms comfortably outstretched, to a tense bird-in-flight position calling to mind Rolls-Royce hood ornaments; the left leg poised back and up above the line of the back, and the arms extended rigidly like wings behind the shoulders.

The "Grand Arabesque, First Time" seems lissome, supple, at ease. The "Grand Arabesque, Second Time" appears a bit more tense, but her leg has yet to ascend above the line of the backbone and the pose is held confidently. The culminating pose, however, the "Grand Arabesque, Third Time" (of which there are five or six variations in the exhibit) does not fare so well. The dancer has begun to lose her balance; and Degas communicates this with subtle wit by having her thrust her right arm away from the wing-spread position and lock elbow out in front--down towards the ground. Her palm has opened and is ready to break her fall. Of course, the statuettes leave unsaid that this maneuver might also break all the bones in the dancer's thin wrist were she to plummet forward. But one suspects that Degas saw the possibilities.

Less understated in its irony is a piece called "Woman Caught Unawares." Here the subject stands frozen in an obviously impromptu pose, her knees buckled inwards and both hands clasped embarassedly together in front of her waist. The funniest and most clever part of this pose, though, lies in the position that Degas gives her head: instead of staring forward, her mouth agape, or the corners of her mouth turned down in a disapproving frown, the visually violated woman has twisted her head around and away from her presumed admirer. For some reason, she wants to spare herself the sight of the man who has just momentarily seen a bit too much of her, and this bit of cleverness saves the piece from appearing only cheaply humorous.

Another statuette, "Woman Seated in an Armchair Wiping Her Left Armpit," does less to observe the limits of good taste. The woman subject, towel in hand, is twisted around on an armchair, her attention unabashedly focused on the intimate task at hand. The robe slumped formlessly over the back of the chair only adds to the inelegance of the action. And underneath this action lies perhaps the most cruel aspect of the pose: the woman's squat. Her corpulent legs half spread and half closed, and her behind perched unattractively on the very edge of the chair, the pose obviously suggests one that even Degas would associate with a much more private act.

But the height of Degas' sculptural wit is attained in the one statue that he put on exhibit during his lifetime (none were cast in bronze before his death) and the one that still remains his most famous piece of work in the medium. His biting humor becomes manifest in "The Little14-Year-Old Dancer," of which both the finished product and a study in the nude take their places in the exhibit. The nude study highlights the ironic contrast between the elegant, flowing pose the young ballet student has struck (her neck imperiously thrust back and her arms joined together in a graceful arc behind her back) and the jutting angularity of her prepubescent body.

All skinny shoulders, puffed-up belly and knobby knees, she nonetheless assumes her delicate ballet posture with self-assurance--more than that, in fact, as across her upturned nose she peers out at the world through haughtily squinting eyes. (She looks as if she were reluctantly holding her breath to avoid taking in a disagreeable smell.) Top this off in the final version with a frowsy, faded vest, a hair ribbon out of place on her gangly frame, and a ragged tutu, and the arrogance of her carriage becomes all the more laughable.

THAT DEGAS WAS ABLE to carry off these humorous effects, often with a mere distortion of gesture or a slight exaggeration of a body type not yet fully suited to the fluid presence of a ballerina, rests entirely on his long study and thorough mastery of the possibilities inherent in the subjects to which he devoted himself. In the period that spawned his most successful and intellectually challenging work, he spent years on end in the practicing rooms where the ballet "rats" (girls, often from the slums of Paris, who devoted their young lives entirely to dance) limbered up and rehearsed.

In his paintings and sculpture, Degas captured these "rats" both graceful in mid-performance and in their less alluring offstage moments, as they turned dumpy and slump-shouldered tying their slipper laces or trudging heavily on their heels. ("After all, have you ever dated a dancer?" a modern critic of Degas' regularly asks his modern art classes. "I once did, and believe me, their legs are as thick as tree trunks and they eat, why they eat like horses!")

This scrupulous examination of both physique and pose (many of the dancer pieces simply bear the name of the ballet position the subject is striking) pays off in some of the more original statuettes in the exhibit. In one series, "Dancer Fastening the String of Her Tights," Degas enlists his intimate knowledge of the graceful "arabesques" (here again meaning "pattern of lines") to ingeniously turn on its head the wit of his voyeuristic studies of women doing their toilette. While this particular task might conjure up a singularly awkward and unattractive image, Degas transforms it into a pleasing, fluid pose. The right hand lies poised on the hip, leaving the arm curved backwards in an arc behind the back, while the left arm wraps tight around the body to reach the string, merging with the other arms to form a swirling ensemble.

Sometimes Degas takes this fascination with linear tension produced by common movements a bit too far, though. In "The Bow," he leaves his subject in such a low-squatting curtsey, her right leg extended stiffly like a dancing cossack, that given one brief moment brought to life, she seems sure to capsize and fracture her coccyx.

With all their sardonic appeal, these statuettes also communicate the intellectualism, the reliance on abstract principles that underscores all of Degas' work. Cultivating his credentials as a budding talent at the Cafe Guerbois in the early days of his career, Degas kept company with many of the great impressionists. These aesthetic revolutionaries sometimes went so far in theory as to advocate that an artist try to unlearn all the stylistic tricks of the trade, plant his easel in the middle of the wilderness and let nature itself rule his brush. Degas, however, eschewed this "surrender to nature" and insisted that the final construction and perfection of an artistic vision must take place in the mind.

Thus his became a deductive, rather than an inductive technique; he would often work from a real-life model in one spot and then change rooms to work out his final painting or sculpture, allowing his mind free reign to reshape a pose according to his own sense of design. One can see this technique in these statuettes: he seems to have done precise copies of models and then inventively stretched and bent the forms for characteristic effects. "You need natural life, I need artificial life," he once told a group of Impressionist colleagues, and he was known to attack their techniques savagely with humorous remarks or gestures. Policemen should be employed to go out and gun down all the easels that cluttered up the beautiful countryside, he remarked one day. And once, on passing an Impressionist canvas whose subject was buried in mist, he silently turned his collar up.

THIS DEVOTION to cerebral abstraction and the life of the studio became increasingly hardened as Degas moved past his fiftieth year and turned more bitter and misanthropic. His eyesight was failing, and his inability to work in less than full light led him to turn increasingly to sculpture. Profound disillusionment and contempt for much of life set in; along with his love of setting mental problems for himself through his art, this frustration suggests some personal reasons for the effect that most of these bronzes produce. The awkward, tortured poses both challenged Degas as master of design and visually expressed his opinion of what he told a friend had become the "impossible" state of the world.

His dancers, jockeys and sultry bathers sculpted over and over, ultimately sum up lives of hard work, frustration and all-too-frequent boredom. They suggest a sense of physical inadequacy to do justice to abstract ideals of ballet, horse-racing or even bourgeois femininity. Degas expressed this despair with regard to his artistic ambitions, when, in old age, he told the painter De Valernes: "I felt myself so badly made, so badly equipped, so weak, whereas it seemed to me that my calculations on art were so right. I brooded against the whole world and against myself." But if Degas sulked and inwardly doubted himself, he presented a facade of cool intelligence, sardonic opinionation and wry humor to the world; and this stylish, witty facade lives on in these statuettes.

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