The Fitzwilliam Museum opens up its collection of Degas studies and sketches to explore Edgar Degas passion for perfection
Abhorring complacency, Edgar Degas habitually revisited and reworked his compositions and the individual poses in them to mine the infinite possibilities of a given subject.
“It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, one hundred times,” said the French artist who believed “nothing should be left to chance”.
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This meticulous approach has left us with some fascinating insights into the world of Degas via the hundreds of studies and sketches he left us when died in 1917, and nowhere in the UK is there a better collection of them than at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
So the Fitz’s major exhibition exploring Degas’ ‘Passion for Perfection’ in the centenary of his death, is timely and apposite, but also a great opportunity to see a rarely displayed collection together with over 40 important loans from both public and private collections across the world including a group of paintings and drawings bought directly by John Maynard Keynes from Degas’ posthumous studio sales in Paris in 1918 and 1919.
The impressive breadth of works on display include paintings, sculpture, drawings, pastels, etchings, monotypes, counterproofs and letters – some business-like, some heart-rending – written by Degas to friends and associates.
Also prominent is Degas’s work in three dimensions: not only the famous posthumous bronze casts of his dancers, horses and nudes, but also some exceptionally rare lifetime sculptures in plaster and wax.
But do these artworks help us to decide if Degas was driven by ‘a passion for perfection’, as one acquaintance claimed? Or does it reveal a resistance to closure that marks him out as an agent of modernity?
Degas repeatedly acknowledged his debt to his artistic predecessors, insisting that ‘No art was ever less spontaneous than mine’ and the exhibition opens with a selection of works that highlight his reverence for classical antiquity and the Old Masters, as well as for painters and sculptors of his own century.
A range of works by some of the artists Degas most admired, from 15th-century Florentine draughtsmen to Eugène Delacroix, Camille Corot and his artistic idol, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, feature along with a number of beautiful and highly sensitive copies he made from antique and Renaissance paintings and sculpture.
The exhibition also charts Degas’ lifelong fascination with the nude, from his classicizing academy studies of the 1850s to the powerful charcoal drawings of female bathers of the last decades of the century.
From his fleshy, transgressive studies of prostitutes in brothels through to his later intimate studies of women bathing, drying or combing their hair – many of the latter depicted from behind – Degas’ unidealised representations of women are felt to have consistently broke with traditional depictions of the female body.
Another favourite Degas theme also makes a major appearance via a range of paintings, pastels, fan designs and sculptures on the theme of the dance.
Degas famously represented dancers at work – performing arabesques, taking a bow at the curtain call, and waiting in the wings; but he also showed them at rest, nervously anticipating a dance examination, adjusting their costume, or acrobatically studying the soles of their feet.
When asked in old age why he always painted ballet dancers, Degas replied because “it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks.”
Drawings and sculptures of dancers also highlight their classical ancestry, notably with reference to terracotta Tanagra figurines produced in the last quarter of the fourth century B.C.
As a counterbalance and fitting homage in the centennial year, the exhibition will conclude with a fascinating overview of 20th- and 21st-century artists such as Walter Sickert, Picasso, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Ryan Gander, who drew on Degas as he did from past artists, studying and learning from his example while ‘doing something different’.
Degas: ‘A Passion for Perfection’ is at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge from October 3 2017 – January 14 2018.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
From Egyptian coffins to Impressionist masterpieces – the Fitzwilliam Museum's world-class collections of art and antiquities span centuries and civilizations.