BooksWeekend

The Blindness of Edgar Degas

His virulent belief system, which led him to cut off his Jewish friends in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, is unredeemed by his art.

Edgar Degas, “Self-Portrait” (c. 1857–58), oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 10 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

David Zwirner Books has published two more entries into its ekphrasis series, which is dedicated to retrieving odd and forgotten texts from the dustbin of art history: the critic-proof Pissing Figures 1280-2014 by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, a collection of short essays on, broadly speaking, depictions of urination in Western art, and Degas and His Model by the pseudonymous Alice Michel.

This is the only extant manuscript penned by Michel, a two-part memoir published in February 1919 in the bimonthly Symbolist literary gazette Mercure de France, which she wrote in the third person from the point of view of a model known only as Pauline.

There are three models named Pauline documented in Degas’ notebooks, as the translator Jeff Nagy writes in an introduction titled “A Model’s Agency,” but there is no way of knowing whether any of them posed for the artist during the period recounted in the memoir, when he was 76 years old, his eyesight failing. It is believed that the author could have been the model herself, or a third party relating the model’s story.

Nagy subscribes to the latter, and goes a bit further by advancing the idea, first raised by the art historian Heather Dawkins, that Michel was a secondary pseudonym for the singly named, pseudonymous Rachilde, “the pioneering decadent novelist,” as Nagy calls her, who in real life was Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, the cofounder and editor, with her husband, Alfred Vallette, of the Mercure de France.

Nagy justifies his opinion by asserting that Rachilde, given her status as a woman “occupying a significant position in an overwhelmingly male industry […] would likely have been sensitive to issues of women’s labor. Perhaps just as importantly, she had the institutional power to see that such an extremely unusual document found its way into print.”

The labor issues addressed in the book are presented in unsparing detail: the dark, cold, filthy studio; the muscle-wrenching poses; the stingy wages; the sometimes brutal treatment; the artist’s mood swings and hair-trigger temper. Pauline puts up with it because Degas offered steady work in an uncertain profession, but she also evinces a real, if conflicted, fondness for the old buzzard, and genuine pity over his encroaching blindness.

Pauline, who poses for Degas after he gave up painting and devoted himself to sculpture, appreciates his importance to French art even as a younger generation of painters, fixated on salons and honors, has all but forgotten him. He was the first artist to hire her, despite her shyness — an improbable drawback for a nude model, which is left unexplained. There is a queasy-making flashback to Degas watching her reluctantly undress so that he could judge whether she was “shapely enough to pose,” followed by an account of the artist punching her repeatedly in the small of the back to force her into the position he wanted.

After years of almost daily contact — Degas never took a day off, not Sundays or even Christmas — the artist seems to gain a grudging respect for his model, while she takes as much control of their relationship as she can, seeing through his bluster and strategizing over what she could say to him to lighten his mood or gain the upper hand in a dispute over working conditions.

Degas and His Model, for a short book (just 58 pages), is rich in incident and secondary characters, such as the artist’s long-suffering housekeeper, Zoé, and Pauline’s gossipy fellow models, Juliette and Suzon, as well as a hapless admirer of the artist who decided to pay an unannounced visit to the studio one morning, which he quickly learned was the wrong place at the wrong time.

Michel, through the viewpoint of Pauline, relates that Degas hated his first name and loved to sing Italian arias; hated the smell of flowers and perfume but loved the odor of burning bread; hated the sight of makeup on young women but loved the artificiality of the theater and ballet.

He reserved his deepest hatred, however, for Jews. Twenty-seven pages in, almost out of nowhere, he erupts into a shocking anti-Semitic tirade that all but capsizes the narrative: “I detest them, those Jews!” he rages. “An abominable race that ought to be shut up in ghettos. Or even totally eradicated!”

Almost as shocking, and perhaps creepier, is a scene that finds Zoé “reading aloud from an article in Libre parole” — a nationalist and anti-Semitic newspaper, as an endnote informs us — while the artist ate his breakfast. “Degas listened with an attentive expression, nodding slightly here and there to signal his agreement with the author.” This anecdote demonstrates that Degas’ bigotry was not a subterranean toxin that would break through the surface from time to time, like a fit of insanity, but a grievance he nursed and cultivated.

The overall monstrousness of his behavior as described in this memoir might be, to an art historical apologist, chalked up to the crankiness of old age. But a decades-long adherence to a virulent belief system, which led him to cut off his Jewish friends in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, is unredeemed by the sublimity he achieved in his art.

As we belatedly come to recognize that social progress is halting at best, and it becomes harder to flatter ourselves on our own enlightenment, it also becomes harder to relegate Degas’ inhumanity to an artifact of a time when racism and bigotry were more acceptable. His cruelty becomes, instead, an indelible component of his artistry.

This is admittedly precarious territory, but I believe it can be argued that the obdurate politics of the two most prominent anti-Dreyfusards in the history of modern art, Degas and Paul Cézanne, played a role in the coldness infusing their relationship to the human form.

Cézanne famously rendered his sitters, most notably his wife, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, with the same dispassion he would apply to a bowl of fruit, setting off generations of painters and sculptors in search of pure form. But his gaze also turned people into objects of research, whose interest lay primarily in the formal possibilities they presented to the artist’s imagination.

Degas’ portraits can be breathtakingly beautiful, but they are also reserved and distant. The sitters avoid eye contact with the viewer (as a stand-in for the artist), and when they do, as in his self-portrait from 1857-58 in the collection of the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, they look wary and world-weary. In the majority of his signature depictions of dancers and bathers, the model’s face is turned away or obscured. This was very likely done for formal reasons — to direct the viewer’s gaze toward the entire composition, rather than zero in on the face — but it also reduces the subject’s personality to her pose — which was frequently torturous, as Pauline attests — and body type. The artist’s insistence on strenuous positions resulted in muscularly expressive imagery, but it also displayed a not-so-mild sadistic streak.

In contrast to their academic contemporaries, whose cloying and superficial paintings quickly achieved institutional recognition and market success, Degas and Cézanne were unable to cloak their ugliness in glazes and varnish: their conflict is our conflict; their inhumanity is our inhumanity. It was their inadvertent honesty that made them modern.

And the modernism they ignited quickly raced away from them. The dramatic spine running through Degas and His Model is the artist’s inability to complete Pauline’s sculpture — a second version of “Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot” (1910-11) — after endless hours of posing. The practice of calibrated accuracy between model and image, which Degas dragged like an albatross from the glory days of the French Academy into the chaos of World War I, had been ambushed decades earlier by the Impressionists, with Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) delivering the coup de grâce.

As Nagy writes in his introduction, “perhaps the most cutting feature of Michel’s portrait is that ‘old Father Degas’ is artistically impotent. He can finish nothing, and statuettes that represent years of work over hundreds of sessions crumble to dust before his eyes, to be begun again, and again, in a cycle broken only by his death. Instead of a prolific visionary, Michel’s Degas more resembles a Beckett character retrofitted for Third Republic melodrama.”

The Beckett reference is particularly apt: every afternoon, dressed in rags because he refused to spend money on clothes, Degas would shamble alone around the streets of Paris until twilight forced him back inside. But every morning he would get up, eat breakfast, brusquely greet his model, and engage once again, nearly blind and stewing with resentment, in a solitary, pointless, and fruitless pursuit of beauty — a 20th-century figure despite himself.

Degas and His Model (2017) is published by David Zwirner Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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