What's on in Paris in Spring/Summer 2012

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Organized by Orsay Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
13th March to
1st July 2012-03-20

Degas and the Nude
The overwhelming concentration on Degas’ nude drawings and pastels in this major exhibition is a powerful statement that delineates the uncommon character of the personage.
The sight of these anonymous women bathing in quasi-acrobatic postures of washing, drying or combing themselves is perplexing: did Monsieur Degas like or did he hate women? The psychological obsession of the painter as a man conceals the main purpose of the exhibition, which is to show how Degas’ work was mostly experimental and by definition modern.
As a subject matter of academic studies, the mastery of the nude was deemed essential due to the complexity of the human form coupled with its foreshortening in space and its configuration during the body’s movement. Degas chose the nude as a subject of intense experimentation in order to prove that anything can be modernized. His achievement in this domain produces spectacularly new viewpoints in form and composition copied and appreciated by Matisse and Picasso in their early works.
The exhibition takes one chronologically through 50 years of Degas’ artistic activity. It starts with early works as a student such as his ‘Young Spartans exercising’ (the classical body), and ‘Scenes of War in the Middle Ages’ (the body in peril); his transition to Realism illustrated by ‘Interior – The Rape’; the Naturalist phase of the monotypes (a printing process that does not need engraving) of the brothels (the body exploited); ‘The Tub’ the everyday life pastels as a noble subject matter (the body exhibited); the nude for nude’s sake period focusing more on the morphology of the model rather than her personality (the body transformed); and lastly his somatically abstract nudes painted when almost blind. An astonishing series of his figurine sculptures are also presented amongst which the celebrated ‘little dancer’. “We must redo ten times, a hundred times the same subject.” he used to say, albeit an easier task in photography which he practiced along with sculpture and poetry.
Well acquainted with academic art as a copyist at the Louvre, Degas was admitted to the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1855. Together with the double homage given to Ingres, the master of the line, and Delacroix the colorist, at the ‘Exposition Universelle’ of the same year, this marks the beginning of his artistic career. The choice of pastel as his preferred medium helped him to unite the two antagonist schools of line and color, an ambition that he shared with Gustave Moreau the Symbolist.
A bourgeois Communard, a sort of a mixture of a reactionary elitist, ‘gauche caviar’ and anti-dreyfusard racist and misanthrope, his familiar silhouette did not go unnoticed on the grands boulevards of Paris and above all backstage in the Paris Opera.  His caustic humor would wish himself to be an ‘illustre inconnu’, but the ‘illustrious anonymous’ had great ambitions of renovation of the arts, a path that was already opened by anti-conformists such as Courbet, master in the art of publicity by provocation.
Some of Degas’ smaller pastels on monotypes of scenes inside the brothels seem to embody the characters bathing in the atmosphere of Zola’s novels far more than the films have done.
More than beauty, his nudes are melancholic observation of daily life in closed spaces permeated by laziness, believed then to be mother of all sins that can, however, be washed off in bath tubs. Degas seemed to observe his unshapely models through keyholes, and far from idealizing them, he almost effaced their faces as if he didn’t want to know them individually because he despised the weakness of their flesh or feared to catch venereal disease.  Manet had observed Degas’ scarce interest in women, which is quite paradoxical seeing that apart from horses his preferred subject matter was women. 
As Duranty affirmed in 1876 “with a view of a nude back Degas manages to reveal their age, their character, and their social condition.” By conveying all their vulnerability, pity, pain, loneliness, fatigue and exhaustion, Degas in fact declares his platonic love for these women. But his friendship with the poet Mallarmé, friend of Manet, whom he met in 1876 at Berthe Morisot’s, ushers him towards a reflection of his own that overflowed the conventional borders of realism or naturalism both in his poetry and his visual productions (he called his art ‘my production’).  Towards the end, he evolved towards a synthetic idea of the nude as a full-fledged subject matter, an ironic suggestion that the nude, emblematic of the form had become for him an abstraction, a sort of an immaculate conception…

Musée d'Orsay
62, rue de Lille/1 rue de la Légion
d'Honneur, Paris 7th
Metro: Musée d'Orsay or Solférino
Open: 10:00 to 18:00
Thursdays until 21:45 and Sundays
from 9:00 to 18:00
Closed: Mondays
Price: 8.50 Euros (Museum + temporary exhibitions).
Photography gallery, ground floor.
Information at 33 (0)1 40 49 47 50

22nd February to
11th June 2012
Debussy, music and the arts
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) drew inspiration from symbolic and poetic art of his time.  “I love images almost as much as music”, he wrote in 1911.  He was most of all attracted to the poetic quality in artists such as Degas, Whistler, Turner, Redon and Claudel. 
His interaction with major musicians, poets and artists are evoked in the exhibition in the section dedicated to his scenic work. Examples are given of his tempestuous relationship with the author of his “Pelléas and Mélisande”, the playwright Meterlinck, as well as his “feverish” collaboration with the Italian poet D’Annunzio for the “Martyre de San Sébastien”, and his admiration for Léon Bakst the powerful decorator of Nijinsky’s ballet “l'Après-midi d'un Faune” (composed by Debussy on Mallarmé’s poem).
The exhibition puts in perspective Debussy’s work with the creative wave of his epoch in different areas showing how the resonance of his music had reached paintings such as ‘Air du soir’ of Cross, landscapes of Munch and Klimt, and decorative panels of Vuillard.  Present at ‘Mallarmé’s Tuesdays’, Debussy also became acquainted with Odilon Redon’s Symbolism and Edgar Degas’ silent music in his ballet pastel scenes, as well as the Nabis symbolist Maurice Denis with whom he collaborated on the ‘Damoiselle élue’, based on Dante Gabriele Rossetti’s poem.
The duo with Monet’s ‘Nympheas’, where Debussy’s music will be diffused in the Orangerie museum’s setting, should give the visitor a unique and unforgettable experience.