27 April 2019 | dromasca
the greatest anti-Impressionist
I had the chance to visit last month the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, a respectable institution, designed as a place of spiritual recollection and of discovery of a selection of treasures of art and civilization, modeled (keeping the proportions) after the British Museum and the Louvre. The museum contains among its exhibits the most consistent collection of Edgar Degas' works that can be admired in the UK, making it a natural host for the 'Degas: Passion for Perfection' exhibition two years ago. I did not have the chance to see that show, but the documentary film directed by David Bickerstaff in the series 'Exhibitions on Screen' as well as the memories of the museum in Cambridge with the halls in which I recently stepped, as well as the meetings with Degas at the Fitzwilliam and in other great museums of the world made for an almost perfect virtual experience.
Degas is one of the most appreciated painters in the history of modern art, but one of the least understood or perhaps even one of the most misinterpreted. His association with Impressionism is primarily related to the generation and to the social and artistic circles with which he was associated. Degas has indeed exhibited together with the Impressionist masters and was part of their group, with many of them at least for a while a friend. Artistically, however, his method was polarizing to the contrary. To the spontaneity of the impressionists, Degas opposes, more than any other painter of his period, a diligent work of continuous improvement. This is what the name of the exhibition and of the film suggests. Monet or Cezanne's favored outdoor painting, Degas preferred the work in his studio, where he spent much of his life. To the social exuberance and the world of salons Degas preferred seclusion, amplified by diminished vision and illness in the last decades of life. Still, Degas has never ceased to explore, adapt, seek new forms of artistic expression. From this point of view, he has been synchronous with his colleagues, perhaps even surpassing many of them in vision and modernity. It was only after his death that the treasures accumulated in the studio began to be discovered, as the painter sold during his life very few of his works, only the minimum necessary for a decent but modest existence.
All these artistic elements are well explained in the excellent comments of the documentary 'Degas: Passion for Perfection'. The level is the one with which this excellent series has accustomed us. From a visual point of view, the works of art are filmed exceptionally, revealing details difficult to observe with the naked eye, even when we are in front of them. The talking experts are excellently chosen among the exhibition curators, the directors and the best specialists from the great museums, and contemporary artists. The biographical presentation is chronological, and brings many essential details, but not all. In Degas's case we are dealing with a complex personality with many shadows and contradictions. The latter are partially presented, withholding some aspects. Maybe it's natural, but it's incomplete. In addition to his virulent anti-Semitism described in the film (Degas was part of the anti-Dreyfus party in the great schism that turmoiled the French society of the era), there were also other dark aspects, documented or deduced, about which some of the other biographies of the artist refer. Keeping them in a discreet and polite silence was the only aspect that diminishes the value of this almost exceptional documentary.