Unreal Nature

March 25, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… The color remains unprecipitated, so to speak, something that shifts away from the contour-embraced forms and asserts a structure at variance with theirs.

This is from the essay ‘Review of an Exhibition of Edgar Degas’ (1949) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… In the earlier stages of impressionism — while Manet was the leading influence — Degas was a very great painter. Manet’s tendency to work in large and abruptly opposed areas of dark and light, the flattened, simplified, and relatively few planes with which  he secured the illusion of depth, his hard and decisive silhouetting, his fondness for blacks and whites and tube color — all this Degas found congenial to his own gift as a draftsman, and during the time he followed Manet’s lead he painted most of his greatest pictures. And he did more than follow. He may have lacked something of his mentor’s force, but he surpassed him in many ways as a picture-composer and altogether as a colorist: his browns, yellows, tans, grays, and blues have a cool radiance beside which Manet’s palette seems dry. The direct brilliance, moreover, of the reds reflected in the mirror behind the figure in the superb little Man in a Blouse of 1874 anticipates the extremest freedom of color in twentieth-century art.

The apparently unfinished Lady with Umbrella of 1877 that hangs next to the Man in a Blouse at Wildenstein’s gives us the other pole of Degas’s talent: the head is Ingresque but  more intensely naturalistic, brushed in with a swift yet precise delicacy that reminds one of Goya — to whom Degas must have gone as directly as did Manet.

Woman with an Umbrella [image from WikiPaintings]

Degas had a real capacity for color, but it was thwarted by his adoption of the divided-tone technique that Monet and Renoir introduced into impressionism in the late seventies. It was unfortunate for him that he did not part company with the movement as soon as divisionism became its hallmark. The fact is, however, that he could not bear to separate himself from the school that had helped make him the artist he was and that, for all his pretensions to the status of lone wolf,  he could not be unaffected by the development of the only contemporary artists in whose work he was genuinely interested. So he followed and competed with Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley in their quest of light and evanescent color. Yet at the same time he refused to paint outdoors and continued to insist on the primacy of line and contour — elements manifestly made discordant, not to say supererogatory, by the impressionist aesthetic of the interwoven passage. And while he strove, succeeding in his pastels at least, to make his color even more prismatic and overpowering in its luminosity than Renoir’s or Monet’s, he did not at all relax his emphasis on drawing. The result was to set up two competing systems inside the single picture: composition by masses of color and composition by tensions of line. The color remains unprecipitated, so to speak, something that shifts away from the contour-embraced forms and asserts a structure at variance with theirs. Usually, in the pastels, the pigment is applied with a coruscating intensity which is too even and complete and which, because it is not modulated in accordance with the drama of the linear design, seems superimposed. One’s eyes become surfeited and bored. And sometimes Degas resolved the conflict between impressionist color and emphatic drawing by retreating toward the picturesque, muting his color but not muting it enough, so that the result became pretty and little else. See, for example, the Race Horses of 1884 at Wildenstein’s, or some of the smaller ballet pictures.

But how well Degas could still handle color when  he abandoned the impressionist method of divided tones is shown later on by his portrait of Henri Rouart and his son Alexis, which he painted in 1895, and which the Wildenstein catalogue — an excellent one — says was  his last finished portrait. Why he suddenly changed his style at this point I do not know, but can only hazard that he may have been influenced at the moment by his juniors, Gauguin and Van Gogh, or even by the earlier Cézanne. Here, at any rate, he builds his picture out of a few summarily outlined areas of flat, unbroken high color, laying the paint on with a little medium and obtaining thereby a simple, intense strength that makes the pastels look meretricious by comparison. The success is owed to the harmony between drawing and color, and this is achieved because the latter reflects Degas’s temperament and not merely his adherence to impressionism and his competition with his fellow impressionists. The color is positive and literal, as suited Degas’s design, not diffused and generalized as under the impressionist method.

Henri Rouart and his son Alexis [image from WikiPaintings]




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