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Playing Degas, Probing Picasso

Picasso Looks at Degas, the Exhibition

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Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; used with permission

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917). Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879-81. Bronze, with gauze tutu and silk ribbon, on wooden base. 99 cm. Photo by Michael Agee.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, June 13 through September 12, 2010

Museu Picasso, Barcelona, October 13, 2010 through January 16, 2011.

Exhibition Catalogue, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, distributed by Yale University Press.

120 paintings, sculptures, prints and examples of archival material.

About the Show

Is there really anything new we can say about Picasso? Evidently co-curators Richard Kendall and Elizabeth Cowling think so and their latest hit (both are veteran block-bluster team members) Picasso Looks at Degas makes the case crystal clear: Plenty, especially when it comes to Degas' influence on the young Spaniard.

For instances:

  • Picasso and his Gang (la bande à Picasso) role-played a game called "Playing Degas" ("Faire Degas").

  • Picasso could study Degas' work through his Blue and Rose Period dealer Ambroise Vollard (Degas' dealer as well) and bought Degas monotypes and reproductions of monotypes later in life.

  • Picasso's father. Don José Ruiz, looked like the aging Impressionist Edgar Degas in the photo Picasso once owned. Therefore, Picasso might have looked upon Degas as another artist-father. (Don José was a mediocre artist and art school instructor.)

Playing Degas

© 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; used with permission

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Standing Nude, 1907. Oil on canvas. 93 x 43 cm. (8750). Museo del Novecento, Milan.

© 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

The game "Playing Degas" required one person to take on the role of Degas. This character set the tone by hurling caustic critical witticisms toward his victim or victims. The young artists and writers who received these critiques either operated as themselves or played the role of other Old Guard artists (such as Giovanni Boldini, and Jacques-Émile Blanche) and would fire back equally clever retorts (showing off to each other and the ladies).

Their "Degas" character was based a published description of the artist: "seventy, a celebrated painter, a socialite and a curmudgeon." The real Degas (1834-1917) lived in Montmartre on the rue Victor Massé, not far from Picasso's studio on the rue Ravignan. Picasso's Gang would see him walking around the neighborhood but never dared to approach him directly. Richard Kendall has noted that the real Degas followed the latest movements and expressed his respect for their avant-garde directions.

Picasso Gang member André Salmon explained in 1955 that Playing Degas " ...was also about pretending to be what we would eventually become, alas! - old. Ridiculing the older generation and the like was an exercise in self-defense against a day that has already come to pass..."

Therefore, the game targeted the Titans of an era in order to verbally assassinate them (much like the mythological Olympian god Zeus destroyed his own Titan father, Saturn) - because their work exerted so much power over these newcomers. "They shoot us, [and then] dig through our pockets," Salmon believed Degas once said. ("Anecdotal History of Cubism," 1912)

From Game to Degas-Associations:

The exhibition Picasso Looks at Degas effectively bears out this apocryphal quotation. For once Picasso and the Gang verbally destroyed Degas in their parlor game, the skillful Malaguenian diligently rifled through his art-father's "pockets" to enrich his own art. Picasso's keen examination of Degas' work can be found in three key areas: subject matter, style and media.

Subject matter: Women at their toilette (grooming themselves), café scenes, laundresses, portraits, dancers and brothels.

For example, Picasso's The Blue Room (The Tub), 1901 (from his Blue Period) is surrounded by or in close proximity to several Degas' monotypes and paintings of women bathing in those old-fashioned shallow zinc pans, known as "tubs" in those days.

Degas' Nude Woman Drying Herself, 1884-86, reminds us that the Frenchman's bathers (much like Courbet's husky nudes of the 1850s and 1860s) challenged conventional academic prettiness. As Norma Broude pointed out, Degas did not create this view of woman based on his misogyny, but on his eye for modernity. (Norma Broude, "Edgar Degas and French Feminism," 1988)

In addition Degas placed the viewer behind, to the side or even above his preoccupied woman (as if he/she were a fly-on-the-wall looking down). By employing this anti-Renaissance one-point perspective approach to composition, Degas introduced multiple perspectives on one surface (simultaneity), which may have influenced Picasso's ideas for Cubism.

© 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; used with permission

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, 1903. Oil on canvas. 126.4 x 94 cm. David E. Bright Bequest. (M.67.25.18). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Museum Associates / LACMA / Art Resource, NY.

© 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

However, the purpose of various vantage points in Degas' work obscured the woman's face. And in Picasso's case, the women seems more available, physically and psychologically. For example, in the Woman Combining Her Hair 1906 series (a beautiful installation of a drawing, a painting and two sculptures from England, New York, Baltimore and Washington, DC, respectively), our access to the woman's face creates a psychological connection that Degas denies himself and his viewer.

The psychological difference holds true in their respective café scenes: Degas' In the Café (L' Absinthe), 1875-76 and Picasso's Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, 1903. Degas objectifies two inebriated, absinthe drinkers. They sit far from away from us at the other side of two tables. They do not engage our gaze nor seem interested in each other either. Because Degas has isolated this liquored-up couple, a man and a woman, we step into Degas' shoes, willing to consider these individuals as casualties of modern life and modernity's alienation.

Meanwhile, Picasso's Sebastià Junyer i Vidal seems quite ready to have us join him at the table. Sebastià looks directly into our eyes, already scooched over to make room for our posteriors. His face glows ghostly white in the artificial light surrounded by Picasso's dusky Blue Period tones. His female companion looks less inviting with her slightly sour expression. (Maybe we should say "hi" and find another table.)

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