Public & Commercial: Degas & Patterns of Exhibiting
Drawn in Colour: Degas from The Burrell, The National Portrait Gallery, London, 20 September 2017 - 7 May 2018
The National Gallery’s recent exhibition of Degas, entitled Drawn in Colour, mostly composed of works from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, was a remarkable free display of that great master’s work to celebrate the centenary of his death. But why was it not more widely reviewed or publicised? Partly because there was another, competing, Degas exhibition running concurrently – at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge – and that show seemed to monopolise the column inches, and partly because there was no admission charge. The public is slightly suspicious of free exhibitions – as if they can’t be any good if there’s nothing to pay to get in. Ticketing focuses the mind, and having to pay for entry inevitably makes the visitor put a value to the experience. In addition, the publicity budget for a non-paying exhibition is a fraction of what is spent on advertising one of the blockbuster exhibitions in the National Gallery’s main galleries or the Sainsbury Wing. As a consequence, visitors to the Degas have tended to be either the well-informed or those who mill through the galleries anyway (tourists, lovers sheltering from the rain, school parties). A lot of the interested gallery-going public simply didn’t realise the exhibition was on.
And this was all the more poignant because the National Gallery’s exhibition was a tremendous tribute to Degas and a very precise celebration of his unsurpassed skills as a pastellist. Thirteen pastels, three drawings and four oils were borrowed from the Burrell Collection (the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell put together one of the finest collections of Degas pastels in the world, which he left to the city of Glasgow together with some 9,000 other objects, including paintings, tapestries, sculpture and stained glass), and these were supplemented by one or two other loans and
the National’s own Degas holdings. The result was one of those smallish displays of utterly beguiling intensity, that enchant the aficionado but don’t much register with the general public.
Degas was hugely innovatory in technique and in his way of seeing, prefiguring many of the developments of the modern movement in his close cropping of images (much influenced by photography) and the informality of his vision. Baudelaire called for a painter of modern life, and had to be content with Constantin Guys, a minor though interesting artist, as his ideal protagonist. Degas hadn’t really got into his stride by the time Baudelaire died in 1867 (nearly all the work in the National Gallery exhibition dates from after that, and certainly the most experimental and remarkable), but surely Baudelaire would have recognised Degas as the ultimate modern painter. When you look at his radical handling of pastel, and the way the colour mixes and sizzles on the paper or canvas, form emerging out of a dexterous weave of hatching and cross-hatching marks, light reflecting through the traces of pigment from the white surface beneath, the effects are magical. Degas often worked in pastel on tracing paper, a translucent support which he usually mounted onto millboard (a thick, textured, grey paperboard), the surface of which the tracing paper then echoed, the pastel adhering to the textured high points. This technique fostered an experimental and speedy approach, and the results can be seen in these dazzling pastel evocations of horses, dancers, laundresses, women in and out of the bath, or combing their hair.
Degas has sometimes suffered from his choice of subject, and his pictures of dancers tend to be admired (or denigrated) for the wrong reasons. I remember as a youthful and impressionable teenager being dissuaded from buying a beautiful reproduction of Degas dancers because the subject was considered effete. It was not the subject that interested me, but the way it was conveyed, the handling of the pastel, the sheer excitement of that dance of colour and form. That moment of allowing my judgment to be overruled has remained with me as a shameful compromise – but at least it taught me something. Not surprisingly, Degas was aware of the ambivalence of his situation. ‘People call me the painter of dancers,’ he said, ‘but I really
wish to capture movement itself.’ That is what his pictures are all about: movement and a sophistication of visuality through pigment that has rarely been equalled.
From the public to the private sector, and a few observations about how commercial galleries organise their exhibitions. It is widely rumoured that the day of the Cork Street or Bond Street dealer with spacious premises for the advantageous display of contemporary art is over. Increasingly, dealers operate from an upstairs office (with a viewing room if they’re lucky), and rely on taking a stand at one or several of the art fairs that have mushroomed in recent years. This is in part because buyers seem to like cruising art fairs where they can hit on more than one gallery in quick succession, make an offer on a painting or sculpture (hardly anyone expects to buy now for the advertised price), and play off the dealers with tales of better discounts elsewhere. As a trend, it is lamentable, and may well see the eventual demise of our Mayfair Gallery quarter, but at the moment St James’s seems to be flourishing (both Old Master and Modern dealers), and Cork Street has been re-built with swanky new galleries ready and waiting for tenants. There’s a good chance that new dealers (or older ones re-locating) will settle in Cork Street and join the hard-core nucleus that still exists there (Mayor, Redfern, Waddington Custot, Messum’s, Browse & Darby). I hope so. I still find a quiet morning in one of these independent galleries the best way to view art – away from the crowds and bustle of a fair.
Coincidentally, Browse & Darby recently held an impressive blue-chip Degas and Rodin show of sculpture and works on paper which helps to demonstrate the continuing vigour of Cork Street, as does Messum’s solo exhibition of recent paintings by the hugely talented Simon Carter (born 1961), who re-interprets the Essex landscape with poetic understanding through an abstract filter. The old pattern of showing the work of an artist in your gallery’s stable every two or three years still pertains, though some especially popular artists (at least those that can produce the work fast enough) may be seen more often. But how does the successful contemporary artist get to exhibit abroad? Very few galleries have reciprocal