De­gas sculp­ture re-ex­am­ined

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Celia Wren

Think of dance and cer­tain anatom­i­cal im­ages may spring to mind: the curve or stretch of arms; the ex­ten­sion of legs or bend­ing of knees; the car­riage of a torso. But in the case of Edgar De­gas’ sculp­ture “Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen,” the body part that com­mands at­ten­tion is the chin. The girl’s un­draped limbs, turned-out feet and erect pos­ture speak of sub­mis­sion to bal­let’s dis­ci­pline; her hands, clasped be­hind her back, ra­di­ate sto­icism. But her up­ward tilt­ing chin be­lies all ev­i­dence of docil­ity: Her chin sig­nals ego, stub­born­ness and a touch of de­fi­ance.

The work it­self was an act of de­fi­ance, ar­gues French writer Camille Lau­rens in the fas­ci­nat­ing new book “Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen: The True Story Be­hind De­gas’s Mas­ter­piece.” By cre­at­ing a sculp­ture largely made of wax — and wear­ing real cloth­ing and shoes — De­gas was re­ject­ing pre­vail­ing aes­thetic rules. In the late 19th cen­tury, such a piece would have struck view­ers as wor­thy of a toy shop or milliner’s win­dow, not a high-art show­case. Just as shock­ing was the sub­ject mat­ter: De­gas was pay­ing trib­ute to one of the young Paris Opera dance trainees known as “lit­tle rats,” a group that had a scan­dalous rep­u­ta­tion, largely be­cause of their gen­er­ally im­pov­er­ished back­grounds, which made them easy prey for lech­er­ous men. “Lit­tle Dancer” stirred con­tro­versy when it ini­tially ap­peared in a Paris ex­hi­bi­tion in 1881.

The aura of dis­re­pute sub­se­quently fell away. “Lit­tle Dancer,” whose orig­i­nal is housed at the Na­tional Gallery of Art in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is now widely beloved. The stat­uette — just over 3 feet in height — has in­spired an ar­ray of pop cul­tural mo­ments, such as fic­tion imag­in­ing its back story, a photo of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe with the sculp­ture, a photo of Misty Copeland as the sculp­ture, and the mu­si­cal “Lit­tle Dancer.” Nov­el­ist and es­say­ist Lau­rens en­ters the adu­la­tory fray with this vol­ume, which is part his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle, part art­fully dis­cur­sive per­sonal re­sponse and part imag­i­na­tive close read­ing of the sculp­ture’s past and present.

Trans­lated el­e­gantly from French by Wil­lard Wood, the book re­counts what is known about the sculp­ture’s model, Marie van Goethem, a laun­dress’ daugh­ter who was even­tu­ally fired from the Opera for ab­sen­teeism. Lau­rens re­source­fully weaves in fur­ther de­tails drawn from the writ­ings of his­to­ri­ans, art crit­ics, schol­ars, and au­thors and artists in­clud­ing Balzac, Zola, Theophile Gau­tier, Paul Valery and Vin­cent van Gogh. This ma­te­rial con­tex­tu­al­izes “Lit­tle Dancer” within the artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual move­ments of its time.

But Lau­rens goes fur­ther, adding her per­sonal ob­ser­va­tions and associative, al­most po­etic in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the ma­te­rial. She parses the semi­otics of the sculp­ture’s wax, re­lat­ing the ma­te­rial to death masks and em­balm­ment, and muses on how “Lit­tle Dancer” re­flects — and de­fies — our aware­ness of mor­tal­ity.

Read­ers who pre­fer straight­for­ward his­tor­i­cal and bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ing may sigh with ex­as­per­a­tion when Lau­rens turns par­tic­u­larly philo­soph­i­cal, imag­in­ing, for ex­am­ple, an in­ner life for De­gas’ Lit­tle Dancer. “Is she filled with a sense of her own self,” Lau­rens won­ders. “Or does she sa­vor the vac­uum at her core?”

Still, the book is full of thought-pro­vok­ing in­sights and rev­e­la­tions. Among the most star­tling is ev­i­dence that De­gas shaped the head of the Lit­tle Dancer to echo phreno­log­i­cal the­o­ries of his day: The jut­ting chin that seems so adorable now may have been a trait that 19th-cen­tury view­ers would have as­so­ci­ated with de­gen­er­acy or crim­i­nal­ity, the book sug­gests. Per­haps De­gas was try­ing to pare open view­ers’ eyes to the poverty and prej­u­dice that pushed some “lit­tle rats” into pros­ti­tu­tion. “To un­set­tle so as to stim­u­late thought,” Lau­rens re­flects, “to make art that was crit­i­cal and served truth, though truth might be cruel, such were the aims of Edgar De­gas, in his ex­treme moder­nity.”

‘Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen’ By Camille Lau­rens, trans­lated by Wil­lard Wood, Other Press, 176 pages, $22.95

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