“I remember the last time I was in the studio, upstairs in the Rue Victor Masse, he (Degas) showed me a little statuette of a dancer he had on the stocks, and – it was night – he held a candle up and turned the statuette to show me the succession of shadows cast by it’s silhouettes on a white sheet.” Walter Sickert, Burlington Magazine, 1917
There are a lot of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) exhibitions around at the moment. As well as large exhibitions at The Fitzwilliam Museum and the National Gallery, I chanced upon a wonderful little exhibition of sculpture and works on paper by Degas and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) at Browse and Derby. Some of the works are for sale and if you have £100,000 or so looking for a home there would be few more rewarding ways of spending it.
Works by Degas dominate the show and reinforce his focus on the female form, particularly dancers. The majority of these works are small sculptures in bronze. Degas is thought of primarily as a painter but he produced models and statuettes in plaster throughout his life. With one exception they were never exhibited nor ever cast in bronze until many years after his death. These bronzes typically date from the mid-C20, some 40-50 years after his death. To my mind they are charming, working models, developed by Degas as objects attractive in their own tight but probably primarily to help him understand the female form by creating it in three dimensions. They have a sense of working studies rather than highly finished pieces. The piece which Browse and Derby have used to create a charming installation about his use of light, shown above, is typical of these pieces.
In later life, Degas developed a particular focus on intimate images of women washing and drying. These works were controversial at the time for their portrayal of seemingly private moments, and remain controversial now because they they reinforce a sense that Degas was both voyeuristic and misogynist, as well as becoming increasingly anti-Semitic in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair. Given his enduring popularity as an artist, he is an interesting case study in the currently active debate about the extent to which you can separate the art from the artist; only with the passage of time it would seem. Anyway, his focus on ‘la toilette’ is also reflected in this exhibition with one of the largest sculptures on show, The Tub.
The highlight of the works by Rodin in the exhibition is Eve on the Rocks, pictured below. It is a much more highly finished work than the pieces by Degas, perhaps not surprising as Rodin was overwhelmingly a sculptor.
Many congratulations to Browse and Derby for putting this show together. It complements the exhibition at the National Gallery very nicely and adds another dimension to the focus on pastels in that exhibition.