This year is the centenary of Edgar Degas’s death. To mark the milestone, the Honolulu Museum of Art—which has a pastel sketch and a charcoal drawing by Degas in its collection—has the honor of welcoming Dr. Timothy J. Standring, the Gates Family Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Denver Art Museum, to talk about “Degas’s Escape: Affirming while Obliterating His Marks on Paper and Canvas” on April 17 at 6pm.” The museum thanks trustee Judith Pyle for making this special event possible.
The free talk will be followed by a reception—meet Timothy Standring and enjoy light pūpū and beverages.
Standring is curator of the Denver venue of Degas: A Passion for Perfection, which was organized with the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in association with the Denver Art Museum. It opens at DAM on Feb. 11, 2018, for its only showing in the United States.
In anticipation of his talk, Standring answered some questions via email—and calls our Degas pastel “stunning” (you can see it in person in the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism Gallery).
So many of our great artists in the western canon are known in short hand— Claude Monet and his water lilies and light, Leonardo da Vinci and his smiling lady, Louise Bourgeois and her spiders, and Edgar Degas and his ballet dancers. But there is so much more to all of them. What would your average layperson be surprised to learn about Degas?
Well, in the first instance, he was more, much more than a painter of the ballet, theatre, or opera. Degas was determined to succeed on his own terms, with his own tuition, following his own will. He had the financial means to undertake his own studies being a lone wolf among the packs of impressionists, academics, and realists throughout the late 19th century in France. During his formative years, he was keenly aware of the demands that historicism presented to him. At first he desired to become a history and portrait painter, but then began to take a different tack and depict the world around him, painting what contemporaries called modern subject matter.
Degas had both a public and private side in artistic practice, in his subject matter, and in his dealings with others. He could be wildly extrovert and castigate in public, and yet for the most part, he preferred to remain private and reserved, making “articles,” as he called his works of art, in the warrens of his studio.
Degas blurred the boundaries of media and techniques: he excelled both as a colorist and a draughtsman. He painted with oils as if he were using watercolors. He invented new techniques to suit his interests. Hoping to replicate the flat appearance of fresco painting, he devised an oil medium known as l’essence in which the oils of a pigment are leached out with the resultant mixture tinged with paint thinner. He also claims to have invented the monotype, experimented widely with all sorts of print techniques, and often combined media in unexpected ways, such as painting with pastels diluted with water.
Degas was both famous and yet independent. He never claimed to have been an Impressionist, but instead considered himself to be an Independent. In fact, he argued that the Impressionist exhibitions should instead be called Salon des Independents.
Our exhibition with Cambridge, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, highlights many of the themes most prominent in Degas’s work: his interest in learning from the art of the past and from that of his contemporaries, a lifelong fascination with the nude, a passion for horses and, especially, a keen interest in the world of the opera and dance. Edgar Degas (19 July 1834–27 September 1917) was a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings and known perhaps best for his images of ballet. Visitors will see through compelling pairings and groupings of works from a wide range of media in which Degas worked such as drawings, prints, pastels, paintings and sculpture that Degas possessed an obsessive desire to reproduce motifs, subjects, and compositions throughout his long career. Such a work ethic enabled him to produce such masterpieces as Dancer with Bouquets.
You have focused on diverse art history subjects, from van Gogh’s drawings to the works of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. What got you into Degas?
There is a connective tissue running throughout all of my exhibitions: how artists actually went about making their works. How did all of these artists overcome the technical challenges of working with the various media that they did? By looking at their works from the nuts and bolts of painting, drawing, sculpting, printmaking, you can then see what a mental effort that was, and how those exercises created the images and the attendant emotions related to such works. I paint watercolors, and I empathize greatly with the artistic journeys of all of these artists. You say that Degas’ work defies categorization—how so? His ballerinas and race horses are so familiar, it can be difficult to see them anew.
But when you compare his sporting art scenes, they are different from the run-of-the-mill same scenes by his contemporaries. Degas selected subject matter that he could repeat time and time again throughout his long career. Your stunning pastel, The Bath: Woman Sponging Her Back is a great example. Although worked on in 1887, the overall motif stems from works he produced in Italy in 1857 to 1859, which I’ll show in my lecture. Visitors will go away understanding Degas in a completely new light. His efforts were directed towards a continual process that runs throughout all his work in all media.
Give us an interesting teaser of what people can expect at your talk.
What compels artists who refuse to give up working on a work as they affirm and then obliterate marks almost in the same instance! Show up without your tutus and dancing slippers, and instead, get ready to rock and roll with the struggling beats of Degas’s own choreography!