Lennox and I went to see the “Degas: A New Vision” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston the other day, and I have to say that it was a pretty impressive retrospective. It consisted of loaned paintings from all over the world, and the MFAH was its only venue in the United States.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is mostly known for his paintings of ballerinas, but he outlived nearly all the other impressionist painters, so it’s not surprising that he painted far more than that. In fact, almost all of his other work is more interesting -- at least to me.
“The Absinthe Drinker” is such a vivid depiction of Victorian bleakness, for instance.
He was apparently fascinated by working women such as laundresses and prostitutes -- and their “plebeian snouts,” the wide, retrousse noses he apparently found common on the, um, common people -- and he painted them in a frankly non-sexualized manner. These were simply women at work, or in the case of sex workers, often on break and taking a rest between customers. Despite his anti-semitism, Degas wasn’t a typical Victorian misogynist. He seemed to respect women and carried on a number of friendships with female painters.
But, yeah. Did you catch that? Yep, in the ever-popular category “Your Fave is Problematic,” it turns out that Degas really hated Jews. I guess it came on him later in life, though, as his intense anti-semitism cost him several lifelong friendships in middle age. Upon reading this, I pulled at my suddenly too-tight collar in cartoonish dismay, for it seemed a little too on-the-nose for our time -- a little too on-the-“plebeian snout,” if you will. (I’m never letting that go.) I think it’s likely that my respect for Degas slipped a little after learning this, and though I can respect his talent, I doubt I could respect his person.
And then there are all the flippin’ ballerinas, of course.
Though I heard more than one person moaning, “Where are the ballerinas?” in the rooms of Degas’ earlier work (and one gentleman who kept saying the artist’s name aloud as “Daayyy-gasssss” in order to annoy the stuffy lady he was with), the ballerina paintings themselves were not my favorites. Though interesting -- especially in terms of light, as they are filled with atypical low light and backlighting -- ballerinas as a subject leave me cold. I respect the athleticism and grace of ballerinas, but do not actually attend performances as my snoring is considered “low class.” And I don’t even have a “plebeian snout”! My nose is rather aristocratic in its beak-like proportions -- I wouldn’t need a prosthesis to portray Virginia Woolf -- and it actually pulls down over my lip when I smile like Charles Dickens’ villain Rigaud in “Little Dorritt.” In fact, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure Andy Serkis also wore a nose prosthetic when he played Rigaud in the TV adaptation! So what I’m trying to say is that I have a very pointy nose.
However, I digress.
Ballerina paintings are lovely, et cetera. Yawn.
But let’s talk about “Le Viol”.
How disturbing is this painting? In my estimation: very. It’s a painting that straight up needs a trigger warning. The male figure blocks the door with casual suppressed violence -- a kind of wide-legged smugness -- while the female figure cringes away from the inevitable. The tension is so palpable that it gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. It turns out, though, that it is likely a portrayal of a scene from a popular play, so I guess we can console ourselves with the idea that it’s just make-believe. And yet...it’s a really difficult painting.
So let’s look at some horse butts instead.
Trust me when I say that this is better than some of his earlier horsey work, which prompted at least one critic to say, “Time to go back to drawing school, dudebro! That is not how horses work, LOL.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist of it.
One thing that I loved about the exhibit was that it collected so many sketches and studies alongside the finished works that those sketches and studies were for. I really enjoy that peek at an artist’s process. I also loved all of the bathing ladies.
Again, not really sexualized, just a lady going about her bathing business.
There were some lovely landscapes, too.
Wait, that is a landscape, right? Not a giant wang? Okay, good. Good. Just so we’re all clear on that.
Anyway, it was an excellent exhibit, and I’m glad I got to see it.