Rachel Cohen

Degas

A little further with Degas

A little further with Degas

Edgar Degas, Before the Race, The Clark Museum, c.1882

Many of Degas’ paintings and drawings of racehorses have titles that name the same moment.  The one at the Clark Museum is called “Before the Race.”  Degas, we are often told, wanted to capture the feeling of motion in painting.  The moments before a horserace are astonishingly dense with motion, not the wild free motion of the race, but the expectation of it.  I think people who love races love the combination – before and during – the anticipatory pausing steps, a taut potential that then gallops free. Great paintings work continually along the tense edge between stillness and motion, and painting seems well-suited to giving the hesitating about-to-be-motion that comes before.

At the Clark, “Before the Race” caught all of our attention.  Little S., two, likes animals in pictures.  M. and I also found ourselves momentarily absorbed in the little picture, the elegant animals, the bright-silked riders. We never know how long we have in a gallery and I hurried to document what my eye seemed to be noticing.  Here are my six details, in the order taken:

rcohen 132


rcohen 132


rcohen 132


rcohen 132


rcohen 132


rcohen 132



It was only in looking at the pictures afterward that I noticed that I had been repeatedly drawn to what I can now see is the fulcrum of the painting: the horse’s head almost awkwardly outstretched, the red and yellow jockey pulled forward in his saddle.

In his essay on Degas, Paul Valéry points out that Degas was one of the first to study the equine photographs of Major Muybridge, which gave the painter the chance to see “the real positions of the noble animal in movement.” (Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, Bollingen Series XLV 12, p40, translated by David Paul)  Before these photographs, as Valéry says, we thought we knew what we were seeing, but, although “it seemed possible to picture the positions of a bird in flight, or a horse galloping…these interpolated pauses are imaginary.” (p41)

The way our family saw “Before the Race” is twice related to this observation of Valéry’s. At the age of two, the world is motion, wild and free, with pauses, such as the one we take before this picture.  And in this little interpolated pause, I hurriedly take a few photographs that will allow me to decipher what was inside the continuous impression my eye took.

Before I saw my photographs, I knew that the painting conveyed to me a sense of excitement at once elegant and awkward, but I would not have been able to point to instances.  Afterward it seemed important that the first time I photographed the horse’s head I left it in isolation, and the second time I included the beautiful patch of lavender paint to the right of the horse’s muzzle, which shows that the horse is reaching toward.

The first photograph was taken at 12:18.25,

rcohen 132


three seconds later I took this image:

rcohen 132


and four seconds after that:        

rcohen 132


In that seven seconds, and, more importantly, in looking at the negative space among the horses’ legs, which gave me the sense of the ground – the ground of the picture, and the fundamentals of this world – I got hold of something about the relation between the stretching horse and his universe, and when I photographed the horse's head again I framed the shot to include the clues Degas had left. Between the horse’s nose and the patch of purple is lure and distance to be overcome, something, nostrils quivering, to reach toward and something that will receive the hooves in motion.

Degas, Valéry says, “is one of the rare painters who gave due emphasis to the ground.”  (p42)  It is in the way a painter does the ground, he says, that one can see color “no longer as a local quality acting in isolation… but as a local result of all the different sheddings and reflections of light in space, passing and repassing between all the bodies contained in it.” The ground gives a unity, one that is “quite distinct from [the unity] of composition.” Working in this way alters the painter’s “idea of form.” (p43)  

Although Valéry doesn’t put it in these words, I think you could say that when the picture is united by these “sheddings and reflections of light in space, passing and repassing between all the bodies contained in it,” then new possibilities for achieving a sense of movement are conveyed to the looker.  These passings and repassings are what we feel as we follow a tripping small girl into the next gallery, and what she herself is exhilarated by as she learns to understand her own movement in space.  In painting so conceived, as in the moment before the races, the potential of movement is in every trembling shadow and patch of ground.   “Pushed to its limit,” Valéry concludes, “this method amounts to impressionism.”  (p43)

Ornament and Negative Space

Ornament and Negative Space

Degas, Edmondo and Therese Morbilli, about 1865, MFA, iphone detail


The trio of Degas portraits currently at the MFA (written about here two weeks ago) has drawn my attention back to Degas.  In half an hour with the Degas at the Metropolitan Museum, and on a quick return visit to those at the MFA, I found myself concentrating on the negative spaces, what happens beyond the edges of the figures, and on the things between things. I looked closely at Edmondo and Therese Mobilli, the portrait Degas made of his sister and her husband about 1865, and at Duchessa di Montejasi, with her daughters Elena and Camilla, from about 1876.  

                rcohen 111                        rcohen 111


And then at home, I went back to some passages of Degas’ notebooks, and was struck by one I had marked before:

"Draw a lot.  Oh, beautiful drawing! – Ornament is the intelligence connecting one thing and another or [one] overcomes this gap by a connection between the two things and
that’s the source of ornament…." {from Sources & Documents: Impression and Post-Impression, 1874-1904, compiled Linda Nochlin, notebook of 1869, quoted on p62.}


It’s this sentence: “Ornament is the intelligence connecting one thing and another,” or the effort of overcoming the gap between two things is the “source of ornament.”  Here is an evidently ornamented passage in the portrait Degas made of his sister and her husband:

rcohen 111


The idea of connectivity seems naturally connected to hands – with what else do we stretch across to “another thing.”

rcohen 111


A further sense of how these connections might be discovered to the viewer comes from a later notebook passage with more instructions the painter made to himself:

"Do every kind of worn object placed, accompanied in such a way that they have the life of the man or the woman; corsets which have just been taken off, for example – and which keep the form of the body, etc. etc."   {see source above, p63.}


Of course one thinks immediately of Degas’ bathers, his dancers.  But even when his people are still wearing their clothes, the clothes follow their forms in such a way that one can almost see a kind of trailing off of the form as one comes to the spaces between the figures.


rcohen 111


rcohen 111



I think part of the beauty of this so-beautiful space between the Duchessa and her daughter is that it still somehow has the residue of their two forms.  The painter has found a way to overcome an obviously formidable distance between them.



Degas Portrait Trio

Degas Portrait Trio

Three portraits by Degas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the MFA right now, a trio of Degas portraits are not to be missed.  They can be stumbled upon in a narrow blue-green corridor on the second floor, next to the sealed off construction zone that is normally Impressionism.  It is as if three of the finest musicians – one at the beginning of his career, one at the end – happened to all be passing through a town on the same night and to have the idea of playing some chamber music – and you happened to be staying at the hotel and to walk by the room they’d found for their rehearsal.    

One of the portraits actually is of musicians – of a guitarist and of Degas’ father, listening.  

rcohen 102


Then in the middle hangs the famous double portrait of Degas’ sister and her to my mind supercilious husband.  

rcohen 102


On the right, the formidable Duchessa di Montejasi and her two wavery daughters.  

rcohen 102


Of course they are famous pictures, but hung together in this order the experience is extraordinary.  


Things noticeable: a significant progression in Degas’ style – from the middle couple painted in 1865,

rcohen 102


to the portrait of his father and Lawrence Pagans dated 1869-72, through to the later piece in 1876.  

rcohen 102


Then there are the family relationships – the father, a little weary but firmly engaged with the music, seems almost to see his outward-gazing daughter as he looks toward the middle portrait – the mother and her two daughters on the right suggest a different balance between the generations.  

rcohen 102


The heights of the paintings, the textures, and palettes, go beautifully together. And then formal resonances: from far apart, the musician and the pair of daughters face each other, while the Duchessa and the married couple have the prominence of facing the viewer squarely, even demandingly.  

And who would have thought the cramped hallway, 253, with its poor lighting and difficult bluish-green paint would make such an astonishing space for them. You have just enough room, by dint of backing and turning, to see all three at once and it is good to look from the long angles the hallway affords and to be brought into such direct confrontation with the pictures.

rcohen 102


rcohen 102


Degas’ beautiful-ugly palette is perfect against the wall color, which flattens out most paintings, but seems to make these only more astringent and demanding.  

It is all the strictest happenstance – because the museum is renovating its main Impressionist gallery, where two of these portraits often hang, but in no clear relation to one another; because the renovation has been made the occasion of the “Boston Loves Impressionism” show; because when offered the choice of fifty great Impressionist works the public voting online chose thirty pictures and not one of these Degas portraits; because the curators, possibly a bit frustrated with the limits of curating by public taste saw an opportunity; because the cramped and difficult space is actually better for seeing these paintings then the larger halls in which they more often hang, because of all of this, a rare chance…

Do go.  A little further along the hallway, you will also get to see what is possibly Cézanne’s last self-portrait, hung immediately next to his wonderful “Woman in a Red Armchair,” (moved since I last wrote about it here).  This, too, is a powerful juxtaposition, strong in the tight hallway, not before displayed in like fashion.  The shadow show, the Impressionism Boston does not love, is as revelatory a sequence of paintings as the seven works in the Frick’s Piero show were last year.    

rcohen 102