Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

At some point while touring the National Gallery my opinion about Degas changed. In Paris, I wrote: “I don’t really like Degas, but I suppose something has to be said about his paintings because there’s so much of his stuff on display at Musée d’Orsay.” This time, things had changed. I’ve always tried to get at those artists who veered off from Realistic and Impressionistic portrayals of things in the world to something else, something akin to not really giving a flying-through-the-air fuck about what the world is like in relation to art: freedom and vulnerability. In Degas there is something like that, something pleasurable marking that spot before everything crumbles.

I can actually pinpoint where my opinion changed: Miss Lala at the Circus Fernando (1879):

The subject matter, the perspective, and the colors floored me. The colors actually reminded me Guérin’s Clytemnestra, a fantastic painting in itself:

Source: Wikipedia

But the perspective, the circus performer, all of this just screams Paris and the eve of Modernism. Miss La La is not the Modern Clytemnestra or anything like that, we don’t have Clytemnestras anymore, but what she is is the sign of something new our age has made and in the end is defined by. And Degas made it.


By the time I got to his Ballet Dancers (1890-1900), a favorite subject of his, I wrote in my little notebook: “I do love Degas.”

It’s not clear what is so great about this painting, but for some reason it got to me. Perhaps it is that dancer adjusting her shoe in the middle of these other women pretending to be nymphs flying through the air; that material, human element of wearing a piece of clothing that does not fit properly and having to break the illusion of immortality while trying to act as a god among mortals. The painting seems unfinished and thus echoes this theme.


La Coiffure (1896) brings us back to the material things of painting.

Source: Wikipedia

Again, we are presented a scene that breaks through whatever public images the subjects want to present. We are in the lady’s toilet, watching her get her hair done. And again the colors are orange and bright and the atmosphere is all about the almost pained emphasis of the importance of what we are supposed to see in all this. The lady seems to be in pain, the hairdresser concentrating on her task, all set alight by the colors and harsh outlines. And again, the star of the show is Degas.

His technique in oil was as brilliant as his pastel stuff.

Source: Wikipedia

However, his theme of removing the curtain between the private and public remains.

Source: Wikipedia

That does not mean that Degas had a weird fixation to ladies showing their humanity. He could do ironic portraits as well and thus show off his sanity.

Source: Wikipedia

In his portrait of Carlo Pellegrini, for instance, he played with the style of his friend and made the most flattering of portraits, the most public of artworks.

And I think it is this that won me over: the wit. There is a sense of fun and recklessness that shines through Degas’s oils and pastels that is utterly disarming. Making a point with wit or irony makes one an accomplice, not someone that has to be manipulated or persuaded in some way, and his little wink makes his art great. So here’s to you Mr Degas! Thank you for showing us the human in the Modern.

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