KPCC culture correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor," at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through April 9, 2018.
He had a huge, white untrimmed beard, but he was still a powerful walker. “All I have left are my legs and my sleep,” he said. Dodging the smelly new automobiles, he wandered the streets of Paris; but shunned the haunts that his work had immortalized—the cabarets, the cafes, the back stage at the opera house, the race-track paddocks. Now the great Edgar Degas seldom painted or drew.
In his last years, as his eyesight failed, Degas devoted himself to modeling female wax figures, attempting somehow to distill the presence and motion of the human body into statues the size of toys.
For years, his sculptures had been preliminary sketches for many of his paintings. Now they were the final results, though he still called his figures "experiments." The world didn’t see most of them until after his death in 1917. Some 70 of these waxworks were cast in bronze and now most of them are at the Norton Simon, along with a generous assortment of 2-dimensional work related to the figures. It is a worthy tribute to the centenary of the demise of one of the most inspired and versatile of all the painters that we call “Impressionist,” giving us what we might rightly call his last will and testament.
Degas said that “the same subject must be done ten times, a hundred times over.” And we sense that repetition in his casts of horses and particularly his dancers, bathers and other nudes—but no "repetition" is truly the same, some of them having occurred over two decades apart. All of them demonstrate what the presenters call Degas’ “fascination with form, balance and movement.”
You might add: "...with stress and with shape." Perhaps the most melodramatic of the nudes are the “Arabesques,” in that most demanding of ballet postures, the human form stretched out into a canted, aerodynamic T shape, a pure demonstration of tension, precise muscular control, plus the alluring power of the female body. They consummate Degas’ decades of artistic fascination with the art of ballet.
Yet Degas shows the same passion for more humble bodily movement in his depictions of bathers, starting about the time abundant hot water became available to the typical French household in the 1870s.Degas then complained that Frenchwomen were bathing too much.
This was utterly hypocritical, as women bathing were the subjects of some of his most brilliant pictures and sculptures, many of both shown here.
Some of his bathers have the crouching dignity of Hellenistic deities, but their physicality is obviously that of 19th Century womanhood.
The most famous -- and in its time, controversial -- of all Degas’ works was the “Little Dancer, Age 14,” a fine version of which is here. It was Degas’ only sculpture to be displayed in his lifetime; he spent years working on it until it was shown in 1881.
Then it was deeply derided for almost every aspect of its genius, from the real cotton of the girl’s dress, the leather of her shoes, even the human hair on her head. Not to mention her forthright posture, one foot forward, and her face, with its what we now might call faintly Neanderthal features turned upward.
One biographer said this little dancer, for whom Degas showed so much affection, really was, in a sense, this celibate artist’s daughter. If so, she stands proudly in the midst of her father’s other great work at the Norton Simon.