An exhibition of one of the world’s most beloved artists, Edgar Degas, opens to the public today at NGV International showcasing significant works never-before-seen in Australia.
My first dalliance with the works of Degas were in Paris at the Musee d’Orsay. I was young, and the pastels of the pretty ballerinas were so romantic and graceful, I wanted to be one of them. Oh how naive I was.
My experiences of Paris have always been in the Winter, museums were the perfect place to pass the hours and take refuge from the cold damp streets of the city. So, it seems fitting that on the opening day of Degas: A New Vision, as part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, Melbourne put on it’s best drizzly weather to help usher us into the warm gallery where a little piece of Paris awaits.
It’s easy to dismiss the work of Degas, as popularist, with crowd pleasing colourful depictions of ballerinas and horseraces. But at the time his work was quite controversial not only in his subject matter but also in his use of materials.
One of his most famous works, The little fourteen-year-old dancer, embodies the dichotomy of Degas’ art. On the surface we see a sweet little ballerina, now cast in bronze, this sculpture was originally presented as a wax figure with real clothing and human hair. The Little Dancer was universally panned at the time for the for the widely held view that associated wax with, at best, the sideshow offerings of Madame Tussaud’s, and at worst, it’s connection to embalming practices at the time. Degas added to the controversy by exhibiting it like an anthropological specimen in a glass vitrine.
Art critic Elie de Mont was flabbergasted: “I don’t ask that art should always be elegant, but I don’t believe that its role is to champion the cause of ugliness.” The diminutive figure, the only sculpture Degas exhibited publicly, was described as “repulsive,” “vicious,” and “a threat to society.” Quite harsh words, now we’d consider that trolling. It’s no wonder Degas never exhibited this or any other sculpture again.
Little Dancer was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered, together with dozens of other wax sculptures, in the artist’s studio after his death in 1917. The original sculptures are now too fragile to travel, but casts made from these wax originals after Degas’ death can be found around the world including our own NGV which has recently acquired the first Degas piece in its permanent collection, Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot (Second study).
His subjects at the time were confronting to French bourgeois society. His depictions of dancers scratched away at the surface glamour of ballet’s front of house in favour of a serious study of the gritty reality of life backstage. There, junior impoverished dancers jostled for attention from their trainers, all too frequently prostituting themselves on the side so they could afford to stay in competition for coveted stardom.
He was fascinated with the human figure engaged in movement and work, and made the depiction of daily life the central focus of his art.
Featuring more than 200 works, Degas: A New Vision reveals Degas’ talent in a new light; not only as a great master of painting, but also as a master of drawing, printmaking, sculpture and photography. The works travel to Melbourne from 65 lenders in more than 40 cities across the globe, it’s really a unique opportunity to see so many masterpieces in one place. Grab a croissant and a Café au lait on the way out for the full Parisienne experience.
Degas: A New Vision
24 June – 18 Sept 2016
180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne Open daily, 10am-5pm
Tickets on sale from ngv.vic.gov.au
Adult $28 / NGV Member $23 / Concession $24.50 / Child $10 / Family (2 adults + 3 children) $65