‘Picasso Looks at Degas” is a double-barreled delight. It offers not only the chance to see many fine works that Picasso made under the inspiration of Degas, but also an equally rewarding opportunity to look over Picasso’s shoulder and examine Degas’s own achievements. As a result, each artist is revealed in new and surprising ways among the approximately 120 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints in the exhibition.
Degas Through Picasso’s Eyes
When Picasso arrived in Paris in October 1900, he was about to turn 19. Degas was 66, an acclaimed if reclusive citizen of the city. Picasso was fascinated by the glamorous life on view in the metropolis’s famous night spots, even though his poverty and foreign status seemed insuperable barriers to sharing those pleasures. Life and art were intertwined, since these cafés and cabarets were the territory of his predecessors, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. For his first substantial exhibition in Paris, Picasso whipped up dozens of scenes in the manner of these masters—particularly Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and Degas. As a pairing in the exhibition shows, Picasso’s vibrantly colored pastel “End of the Performance” (1901) mimics Degas’s portrayals of actresses on stage without yet achieving the unexpected viewpoint and cropping of Degas in his prime (“Song of the Dog,” c. 1876-77). Among this generation of artists, only Degas would rival Cézanne (the father of cubism) as a model for Picasso.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the exhibition is the exhaustive research that has gone into the selection of works on view, not pedantic shoveling but riveting detective work that brings these two artists to life and, amazingly enough, shows them crossing paths, nearly bumping elbows and probably exchanging glances at each other’s works without ever meeting in the neighborhoods of Pigalle and Montmartre, where they both lived in the early years of the 20th century. The dealer who gave Picasso his first show, Ambroise Vollard, was a longstanding friend of Degas and held many of Degas’s pictures in his legendary storeroom. It is easy to imagine Vollard pulling out Degas’s café scenes to show Picasso as they prepared for the Spaniard’s exhibition in 1901.
By 1904, Picasso had established his independence. His “Woman Ironing” of that year is unthinkable without Degas’s defining images, yet Picasso’s emaciated icon of suffering strips away Degas’s sensitive evocation of light enveloping his laboring figure and casting in sharp relief the freshly folded shirt in the foreground of the older artist’s “Woman Ironing” (1876-87). The exhibition makes clear that Degas was far more than an Impressionist. Moreover, it proposes that this darker, more challenging Degas ultimately had the greatest impact on Picasso.
We think of Degas as a 19th-century artist, yet he lived until 1917. Since he rarely exhibited during his later decades, the posthumous sales of work from his studio were a revelation. These auctions dispersed hundreds of drawings, prints, sculptures and paintings. They presented Picasso with a Degas who had transformed Impressionism into a radically experimental and introspective art.
Picasso Looks at Degas
Sterling and Francine Clark Institute
Through Sept. 12
The discovery of Degas’s real achievement inspired Picasso during the remaining five decades of his career. He engaged Degas’s diverse work intensively if episodically— everything from Degas’s longstanding passion for the ballet (after Picasso married the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova in 1918) and Degas’s newly uncovered career as a sculptor to the monotypes of prostitutes and customers in brothels that Degas had largely kept to himself.
Each artist found sculpture a liberating sideline to his career as a painter. Approximately 50 years apart, both chose a subject almost unknown to modern sculpture—a pregnant woman. At the turn of the century, Degas made no effort to hide the lumps of wax from which he built the sculpture; nonetheless his figure captures the mother’s self-awareness as she embraces her distended belly with both arms, bends forward, and lowers her head in contemplation. In the ’50s, Picasso constructed a totemic figure, stiffly erect in the manner of a Congolese fetish, with none of the intimacy implied in Degas’s work. This contrast displays what we imagine to be the naturalism of the 19th century versus the abstraction of the 20th; yet Picasso likely took from Degas not only the subject but Degas’s rough modeling and even his innovation of combining handmade forms with found objects in a single sculpture. While Degas used a small basin to serve as the bathing vessel in his sculpture “The Tub” (c. 1889), Picasso employed a rounded pot to shape his woman’s tightly stretched abdomen. As in many of the meticulously chosen pairings in the exhibition, this group precisely displays Picasso’s borrowings as it alerts viewers to the individual achievements of each artist.
In 1958, Picasso made a purchase he had long coveted: a group of Degas’s very rare monotypes of brothels. These unique prints of brutally frank scenes inspired Picasso to engage Degas more intensely than he had at any previous time, and he did so in ways unique among his dialogues with other predecessors. Picasso’s reverence for Cézanne mixed respect with intense rivalry. He came to view Degas as a kindred spirit. As Picasso approached his 90th year, he made a series of etchings that obviously channel Degas’s powerful brothel scenes. Remarkably, they even include Degas himself, but only as an observer of the events. Having contemplated him for nearly three-quarters of a century, Picasso made the elderly Degas an alter ego, evoking both Picasso’s own physical decline and his detachment from the contemporary world of the ’60s and ’70s.
The catalog by the two curators of the exhibition offers a final pleasure. These exceptional scholars, Richard Kendall and Elizabeth Cowling, not only vividly address their own specialties in Degas or Picasso (respectively) but also trade places to spark remarkably fresh readings of each artist.
Mr. FitzGerald teaches the history of modern art at Trinity College.
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