Writing Archive

RISD exhibitions draw connections surrounding Degas

Boston Globe, January 1, 2006 (read there)

PROVIDENCE -- One drawing by Edgar Degas, depicting friends of the artist as they assembled in the resort town of Dieppe, France, lies at the center of three exhibitions at the RISD Museum. Degas clearly drew it with high regard for the fellows, using a compositional idea that he borrowed from newly available Japanese prints and a pastel technique that had no precedent in the history of the medium.

In the drawing ''Six Friends at Dieppe," Walter Sickert, the British painter roaming France to soak himself in Impressionism, stands alert, ready to pivot on his heel and stride off the left edge. Two men in top hats sit together in the foreground: Albert Boulanger-Cavé, a government censor with little taste for censorship but with an acclaimed critical eye for the theater, and close behind him Henri Gervex, an academic painter. (Degas proudly maintained friendships with academic painters even as his Impressionist colleagues rejected their work.)

In the background is the stocky, clean-shaven Jacques-Émile Blanche, an Anglophile portraitist and polymath. He nearly eclipses Ludovic Halévy, a librettist (''Carmen"), and his son Daniel, who eventually became Degas's biographer despite a falling-out between Degas and Ludovic Halévy.

The RISD exhibitions capitalize brilliantly on the many stylistic and historical connections that radiate from this drawing, like spokes on a wheel. ''Edgar Degas: Six Friends at Dieppe" explores its dramatis personae with paintings and drawings by Degas, Sickert, Blanche, Gervex, and a handful of contemporaries, as well as photos of and ephemera relating to the Halévys and Boulanger-Cavé. ''French Drawing in the Time of Degas" covers the expanding range of work being done on paper during the late 1800s, and various artists' relationships to Degas. And ''Japonisme: Japanese Prints and Their Influence in 19th-Century France" features the woodcuts that, as a genre, changed the face of Western painting. The three take up a total of five rooms, but their works relate to one another with such a dense network of associations that these little shows have the heft of several larger ones.

We expect works by Degas to be off-the-chart beautiful and consummately well-drawn. "Six Friends at Dieppe" is no exception, and you can also see the master forming the future of art. He drew Sickert's coat and pants with a few dozen canny outlines over a flat smear of putty green. On top of this he scrawled a loose terra-cotta grid, knocking the largest figure backward into space by pure force of color. Nothing like that combination of flatness, space-bending, low-key color, and the rough grid happened again until Georges Braque's experiments with Cubism 20 years later.

Degas rendered one side of Ludovic Halévy's face with three dark strokes -- an efficiency that would have aroused the envy of a Japanese ink painter. Japanese art influenced all of the Impressionists, but Degas seems to have gotten the message faster and more completely than any of them. He seized on the Japanese artists' economy of line, their use of evocative neutral colors, the flatness of their spaces, and their asymmetrical compositions. He probably derived some of his arrangements from works like the prints by Utamaro in the ''Japonisme" show. In one of these, a woman directs her attention somewhere off the edge of the page -- much like Sickert in ''Six Friends."

Degas also embraced the camera to a far greater extent than did his fellow Impressionists. An 1895 photograph by Degas in the ''Six Friends" show depicts Ludovic Halévy in a weary pose, looking up from reading, his eyes shining with intelligence. The photograph became the souvenir of a friendship that disintegrated over the Dreyfus Affair, an anti-Semitic episode in French history that divided Jews such as the Halévys and nationalists including Degas. The rift went unrepaired until the elderly Degas called on the Halévy family at Ludovic's memorial service.

Partly by dint of curatorial effort, the works connect in ways that make it possible to link disparate characters, like a 19th-century version of the Kevin Bacon game. For instance, ''Japonisme" features a woodcut by Kuniyoshi, which hangs in the background of Manet's ''Repose," one of the jewels of the RISD Museum's permanent collection. In the ''Six Friends" show, we can go from Degas's drawing of Blanche to Blanche's portrait of Degas to Blanche's portrait of . . . Virginia Woolf? Yes, it turns out that Blanche received encouragement from Woolf to pursue his writing. Thus she appears, with heavy eyelids but a smart smile, her face seemingly pulled long by chronic oscillation between amusement and sadness.

We've had a lot of exposure to Degas. We may have tired of ballerinas and bathers. This group of shows at RISD provides an excellent alternative view of the master, reconstructing the web of influences extending to him and from him. Teasing out the myriad connections to this one drawing makes him seem less like an icon and more like a work in progress, befitting a figure who, even into late old age, thought constantly about how to advance his art.

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