Pub­lic & Com­mer­cial: De­gas & Pat­terns of Ex­hibit­ing

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­drew Lam­birth

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

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