Delectable Degas at the National Gallery, Melbourne

I can’t say I was desperate to see the Degas (French  1874  - 1917) exhibition, but who doesn’t like his ballet dancers?

degas pastel ballet dancers

Probably half the show was very careful realist portraits of family and acquaintances in pencil, or charcoal or oil.

I’m just not that into realism. Especially drawings in the beaux art tradition. I just find them just so boring. (Interestingly Degas found the landscape boring. How is that possible? I don’t know.)

But there was a couple of seascapes he did mainly from memory which were the opposite of his people – very generalised, vague - quite unrealistic. Large, diaphanous areas of horizontal bands of muted colour with dots for figures. I liked them.

I found his animal pictures more sympathetic than the humans. A dead fox. Horses. His people were pinched, strained, hostile. Not very attractive really. There was no joy to be seen. But then he started at the horse races. So in comes colour and dynamism. The face loses it’s interest for him it seemed from then on.

degas the dead fox

He was obviously influenced by the impressionists - the big 3 - Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, (and exhibited with them but couldn’t stand the name impressionist or the drama associated with them).

To me, their influence makes his later works of dancers and female figures just radiantly alive, even if contorted. They are just so beautiful, with that velvety pastel texture. Pastel really does have such an organic quality, like what you are witnessing has somehow emerged out of the paper, rather than drawn onto it.  His mark making just got looser and more exhuberant as he got older. And they’re exciting to look at as a consequence.

My favourite Degas quality is his use of the chiaroscuro spotlight in unexpected iridescent hues- it takes his pictures into another realm entirely. Into the world of love. A little bit of a momentary utopia for the life-long single Degas.

degas painting at the national gallery of victoria

The exhibition, at the National Gallery of Victoria, ends on Sunday 18th September 2016 and then goes to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in October.

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