The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris have two of the world's best collections of the work of the French postimpressionist Edgar Degas. The two museums have collaborated on an important show called Degas and the Nude, which includes pieces from major museums and private collections all over the world. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, who lives in Boston, was moved by the show, which also triggered a sweet personal memory.
My one personal association with any work by Edgar Degas is something that happened about a decade ago — a chance encounter with Hollywood dancing star Leslie Caron. She was appearing with the Boston Pops, and on her night off attended a contemporary music concert, which featured the premiere of a work written and performed by an old Hollywood friend of hers, Jack Larson, alias cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on the Superman TV series. She was sitting only a few seats away from me, and during the intermission I spoke to her and told her how much I loved her in Gigi and An American in Paris and practically everything else I ever saw her in. We struck up a conversation. She was in Boston alone, didn't know the city, and asked about its art museums. I offered to take her, and she accepted my invitation.
The most memorable moment of that expedition was at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which owns Degas' famous bronze sculpture of a young ballerina in a tutu, posed with her hands behind her back. Caron looked at the sculpture and asked me if I realized how intentionally awkward and incorrect the pose was. She pointed out the subtle creases in the young dancer's tights, which I had never noticed. Then she kicked off her shoes and right there in the gallery demonstrated the correct position.
I'm remembering this now because there's a remarkable exhibit that the Museum of Fine Arts is sharing with the Musee d'Orsay in Paris: the very first exhibit ever to focus on Degas' studies of the nude. At first, in the 1850s, Degas, still in his 20s, was doing academic studies of male nudes. Then he suddenly turned to women and, for the rest of his career, he painted and drew and made prints and sculptures of naked women — usually women getting into or out of bathtubs, often shallow washbasins on bathroom floors.
But even his images of clothed women, especially dancers, including the young ballerina, he often first did as nudes, as if he needed to understand the bodies under the clothes before he could put clothes on the bodies. Like the ballerina, none of these women are very graceful. They are full of the awkwardnesses of real life.
They almost always have their backs to us, so their faces, their identities, remain mysterious and private. The one exception is an astonishing series of small monotypes set in a brothel, in which the nudity is fully and graphically frontal. These women have nothing to hide and keep nothing to themselves. Yet all these images depict something vulnerable.
One of the points the show's Boston curator makes is that in a couple of odd, very early quasi-allegorical paintings, Degas showed women quite explicitly as victims of war or rape. And their often contorted poses turn out to be very similar to the positions of the later images of women bending over a bathtub, twisting themselves to wash themselves or dry themselves off, or comb their long hair. Seeing the way this private vulnerability derives almost in a straight line from those early images of explicit victimization maybe helps us understand more clearly why these later, relatively innocuous and mundane images have such mysterious power.
There's so much variety in Degas' work, it's surprising to confront his obsession with this one subject. The exhibit is almost claustrophobic, yet subtle differences in the poses and in the technique — the smoothness of paint or the rougher texture and airiness of pastel — bring each image to life in a different way. One key component that adds an additional dimension to the show is the inclusion of nudes by other artists — contemporaries of Degas; artists who influenced him, like Ingres and Delacroix; or whom he influenced, like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Renoir.
There's another show at the MFA that makes a fascinating comparison with Degas' nudes. It's apparently the first museum exhibit anywhere to focus on the classical image of Aphrodite — Venus. And although it doesn't include the most famous Venus of all, the Louvre's Venus de Milo, there are dazzling examples from the great periods of classical Greek and Roman sculpture, small frescoes from Pompeii, and even earlier images from Egypt and Cyprus. These goddesses are stylized, idealized, not portraits of individuals going about their daily rituals but actually elements of ritual.
After I saw this show, I returned to Degas and was all the more moved. But I thought maybe "nude" is really the wrong word for Degas' images. These figures aren't so much nude as naked. Poor, bare, forked animals, as Shakespeare might have called them. Not godlike at all, but all too heartbreakingly human.
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