Degas’s ballerinas in motion in Macao

29 July 2016

Imagine a man who zealously observes horses running and women dancing, compulsively photographing, drawing, and sculpting these subjects in an attempt to immortalise each moment, each movement for eternity.

Nowadays, anyone can do this with a snap of their smartphone, but in 19th century France, Edgar Degas was a pioneer of camerawork in Europe and one of the first visual artists to designate movement a theme of his vast body of work.

An aristocrat and an art collector in his own right, the French artist is today considered one of the greatest revolutionaries of 19th century art, and his legacy has left an indelible mark upon history transcending time. Perhaps best known for his iconic paintings, Degas was also a prolific sculptor, of which 74 specimens are currently on display at the MGM hotel’s art space in an exhibition named “Edgar Degas – Figures in Motion”. This collection comes to Macao courtesy of the M. T. Abraham Foundation for the Visual Arts, a private family foundation that also possesses a large collection of avant-garde Russian and European pieces as well as some Surrealist and Dada works.

Dalit L. Durst, the show’s curator, had never imagined mounting such an exhibition in a casino in Macao. “I knew the story of Macao because I harbour very strong feelings for Portugal, and I know that Macao was a Portuguese colony, but I did not know that there was an MGM here,” she says. “When I walked into the Grande Praça, I was a little surprised by the setting.”

The MGM Art Space, with its mission of “improving the cultural image of the city, “convinced the foundation. Durst collaborated seamlessly with the casino-resort team to overcome obstacles such as persistent humidity to ensure a successful show. “We are delighted. There were nights when we worked until two o’clock in the morning to finish everything on time. Many things had to be transported from Mainland China, and there were delays. We had to paint and repaint, but everything went very well, and I can say that I fell in love with the people of Macao.”

Impressionism’s enfant terrible

Born in Paris in 1834, Degas was the son of a wealthy banker. Until his death at the age of 83, nothing suggested that this particular artist would go down in history as a revolutionary for satirising and reformulating society’s visual perceptions during his time.

Degas’s father expected him to pursue a career in law, but Degas instead turned to art. It was at the École national supérieure des Beaux–Arts (National School of Fine Arts in Paris) that painter Félix-Joseph Barrias impressed upon him the importance of repetitive sketching, whether from memory or nature.

Degas spent endless days at the Louvre, copying the works of Italian, Dutch, and French painters he admired. It was reportedly there, while copying a portrait of Diego Velázquez, that he met Édouard Manet who would become his lifelong friend and introduce him to Impressionism, a movement formed in response to the predominantly academic paintings of the late 19th century.

Around 1870, after living in Italy for several years, where he conceived one of his most famous works, The Bellelli Family, Degas began his first studies of horses.

“As an aristocrat, he enjoyed watching horse racing and that’s where he fell in love with photography. He was one of the first people in France, and in Europe, to walk around with a Kodak camera, taking pictures of family, friends, and models as well as himself,” claims Durst. Accordingly, the MGM exhibition is curated “as if we see pictures one after the other, attempts to capture the moment because Degas had a very keen sense of observation.”

From 1874 to 1886, Degas mounted his work along with other Impressionists in eight shows known as the Paris Salon, “Impressionist Exhibitions.” While he was associated with the movement, Degas often found himself in conflict with his colleagues. The French painter was not a landscape artist like his contemporaries, appreciating instead mundane and unusual portraits and stills and capturing the movement of everyday life.

Degas, however, did not actually consider himself a true impressionist. His work did not follow the Impressionist palette and was instead meant to shock the eye with its discordant colouring, where intense violets and acid greens were placed side by side. Additionally, he frequently chose unconventional themes: foregoing the outdoors, a popular subject with his contemporaries, Degas became influenced by naturalist aesthetics and portrayed everyday Parisian vices, The Absinthe Drinker, and habits, The Brothel.

Frequenting Parisian nightlife, especially the opera, led him to depict multiple viewpoints with unusual framing. “Even today, Degas continues to be much sought after because it is very easy to like what he did. Women and children love classic ballet: it is beautiful, and Degas portrayed it in a different way,” says Durst. “In this exhibition, you can understand that. The ballerinas are not very tall, they are not that beautiful, and Degas presented them as they were in reality. He even portrayed the suffering because being a dancer consists of many, many hours of daily work and physical pain, and you can feel it.”

Degas’s dancers made the French painter legendary. During the period in which Degas painted his legendary dancers, his works became more expressive, alarming, and frightening.

The most important piece currently on display at the MGM is undoubtedly The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (1881), a work marking the beginning of Degas’s independence from the Impressionists and one that was meant as a joke to provoke and shock colleagues and society alike. The sculpture is of an opera dancer from an impoverished family whose sister was a prostitute. The dancer studied ballet until the age of 16, when, after Degas had completed the sculpture, she also resorted to prostitution in order to survive. In her face, Degas memorialised the misery and despair of poor and working-class Parisians at the time.

In addition to its blatant provocation, the work was also unusual for including real props, such as a wig of human hair, a silk ribbon, a tutu, and real ballerina slippers. “Surrealists like Marcel Duchamp copied it years later,” exclaims Durst. “What [Degas] did was really wonderful, and that’s why I admire him as an artist, how he dared to do things differently.”

She notes that, at the time, Degas moulded his sculptures in wax. None of them were cast in bronze on the grounds that such a permanent material should be otherwise purposed, for example, building cannons during the First World War. Additionally, Degas never considered himself a sculptor. Instead, his sculptures were merely a form of practice, a different way of contemplating a subject. In fact, while Degas created a number of sculptures throughout his career, all but The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer remained unseen by the public until a posthumous exhibition in 1918. Upon his death, his heirs discovered a cache of wax figures in his studio, 74 of which were cast in bronze by the Hébrard Foundry.

“What he did was really wonderful, and that’s why I admire him as an artist, how he dared to do things differently,” said Durst.

The influence of the East

Although the Far East may not yet be familiar with Degas’s, the French artist was strongly influenced by Oriental art and particularly by Japanese printmaking, which had made its way to exhibitions in Paris in the 1860s, according to Durst. “Degas loved Japanese art. At the time, Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, Tōshūsai Sharaku, and Utagawa Hiroshige were very popular in Europe, and he had a large collection of prints.”

Bathing women, in addition to horses and ballerinas, is the exhibition’s third thematic section, “giving us the impression that we are peeking through the keyhole, watching moments of great intimacy of women as they brush their hair. Utamaro has a number of works of women brushing their hair, bathing, and getting out of the bathtub, as does Degas. We know that Degas was very influenced by the work of Utamaro. He was his favourite artist,” explains Durst.

Works such as The Tub and After the Bath, Woman drying herself are most representative of Degas’s work. They embody the naturalistic side of an artist who, attracted to the female body, portrayed nudity throughout his career, but Degas did not idealise nudity; rather, his was a realistic perspective influenced by the philosophies of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix. At one point, Degas became increasingly interested in representing models from a rear perspective, focussing more on morphology than personality.

Movement that continues today

Even today, the paintings of Degas remain the most sought after by buyers from around the world. Recently, Woman Combing Her Hair was acquired by Pallant House Gallery for five million patacas.

Degas was a controversial avant-garde artist who dared mix Impressionist style with naturalistic and even conservative inspiration simultaneously. Heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance and French Realism, he was also, like many modernists, greatly inspired by the odalisques of Ingres.

“Edgar Degas – Figures in Motion” is on display at the MGM Art Space until 20 November 2016, comprising 74 works that “can never be separated,” insists Durst. The M. T. Abraham Foundation however wishes to bring them to Beijing and Tokyo in the future. “In the Far East, Degas’s work is lesser known, his sculptures especially so; this is a wonderful opportunity not only to enhance Macao’s cultural image but also to meet the purpose of our foundation which is to share the collection with the general public,” says Durst.

Durst believes that it is a rare opportunity not only to present Degas’s bronzes to this part of the world but also to inspire the local artistic community. “I think the message that Degas can give today’s artists is to believe in what you do and don’t pay attention to what others think about it. In our modern world, things change so much and so quickly. Everyone takes selfies, don’t they?” (Macao Magazine, by Filipa Queiroz)