It’s a little ho-hum that the NGV’s winter blockbuster exhibition is yet another Impressionist exhibition, not because of the quality of the art of course but because of the predictability of the public’s love of Impressionist art, but then if you are going to see an Impressionist, Degas is the one, at least from the perspective of someone interested in drawing. Degas is one of the few artists in this league for whom drawing plays as important a role as painting, and is not merely preparatory study, as it would continue to be right through the twentieth century. And in an exhibition like this the comparison of the pastels and the paintings (let’s leave aside, for the moment, the charcoals and prints) is invaluable. Firstly, it shows how similar they can be. His pastels have the depth and work of the paintings, while there is something about the luminescence of some of his paintings that are like the effect of pastels. And his technique is similar in both media – the angled, jabbing strokes, not only finely worked but overlaid. Indeed, apparently, the exhibiton notes tell us, Degas used layering of pastels to achieve the depth, applying lacquer in between the layers. He was something of an innovator when it came to media, occasionally crushing pastels, wetting the powder and applying it with a brush, which then blurs the line between painting and drawing. He experimented with tools for engraving and also revived the craft of monotype (the method of applying paint or whatever to glass or metal and pressing paper onto the plate to make a generally once-off print) which was barely used in his day, but became much more popular into the twentieth century. One can perhaps see why when we look at Degas’ prints, which have a decidedly modern feel to them.
Degas was not quite the entire Impressionist. He rarely ventured into painting the countryside en plein air. When he did do outdoor scenes they were primarily to show his beloved races, and the countryside is merely a backdrop for his groupings of figures, in this case, horses. Indeed, groupings, groupings everywhere in this exhibition. The odd angle, the cut-off bodies and heads, the asymmetrical groupings all show the effect photography, and its ability to candidly capture and not arrange, had on his art. Compare his earlier painting of Spartan youth, which required a great hulk of a building to hold down the centre of this very classical painting, to the later paintings of groups of ballet dancers where he was unafraid to whack a great hunk of nothing in the middle of the painting (or even better, not quite in the centre of the painting). His paintings and drawings of nude women or dancers, in particular show how keen he was on capturing the awkward pose in an attempt to convey not elegance but everyday life. (If you count ballet as everyday life.)
The exhibition also contains a fair smattering of his bronze figures which are charming in their disarming size and continuation of his fascination with the contortions of the human body.