Degas and naked forms is like bread and butter, sweet and sour, fries with your cheeseburger and soy sauce with your sushi. The one has to have the other, and the latest exhibition focusing on Degas paintings makes no attempt to cover up, if you’d excuse the pun. Named simply as Degas and the Nude, the unabashedly bare exhibition is on from now until February 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States of America, before it moves to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Exhibition goers should be prepared to answer one question: what is the difference between nude and naked?
Critics have praised the show for skilfully showing Degas’ skill in displaying the realism of the female form. The naked figure was a large part of the Degas oeuvre, right from the start of his career in the 1850s until the end of his life. The artworks on display mark each major milestone of his artistic career; the exhibition itself is a bit of a milestone, considering it was the culmination of three years of planning between the two museums. As Art of Europe and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA chairman George Shackelford said, all the body’s expressive possibilities are explored: “It shows how his personal vision of the nude informed his notion of modernity, and how he abandoned the classical or historical form in favour of a figure seen in her own time and setting, whether engaged in shockingly carnal acts or just stepping out of an ordinary bath.”
Carnal acts and nudity, you say? We know we have your attention. The carnal side of the nudes are on show through the Degas series on brothels, while his more refined nude forms show women in the bathroom. One motif of the exhibition is that Degas was nearly an academic on the female form. He found no differences between the dancer, bather or prostitute, but rather only sough to show the contextual, and well as environmental factors, that altered society’s perception of the women. This is noted in the exhibition’s pamphlet, which reads “capable of biting satire but also of enormous empathy, Degas approached each of his nudes in the terms warranted by that moment.” This academic approach to women, and indeed the female form, is paralleled by Degas and his actions in personal life. He was, according to all historians and primary accounts, not the sex-crazed artist in the same vein as Picasso, Modigliani or Rivera. He was, rather, a rather serious fellow who was very discrete with whatever relationships he had. He never married, but was close to many women, including the feminist and Italian journalist Diego Martelli and American impressionist Mary Cassatt.
So how much did Degas’ relationships affect his art? It is impossible to say, but his work on the female form evolved quickly from conventional to extraordinary. His two earliest works were Young Spartans Exercising and Scene of War in the Middle Ages, oil painting narratives that were painted for exhibition at the Salon in 1860-62, and 1863-65 respectively. Each containing nine naked figures, they raise questions about war time rape and indeed the role of women in conflict, both as potential victims and perpetrators. From there the exhibition leads people to examine his brothel monotypes and his later nudes, many of whom posed in similar positions to his earlier works. As his eye sight failed it became obvious that nude and naked would be impossible to define, even for this impressionist genius.