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Des orgies de couleurs: Degas at the National Gallery

18 September 2017

coverEveryone loves Degas, and everyone will love the new exhibition of the Burrell pastels at the National Gallery which opens on Wednesday, marking the centenary of the artist’s death. I’ll leave it to other reviewers to come up with adjectival encomia (all in the superlative), but we are assured of massive attendances and a measurable increase in visitor numbers. (The only thing lacking is a hefty entrance fee – always a reliable way of making the public feel they are getting value.) All good things, even if it slightly feels as though an opera house has opted for La Bohème instead of a Rameau revival or an Alban Berg. Degas’s popularity means that he is represented in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shows; the National Art Library holds catalogues for nearly 100 monographic exhibitions of his work (this is the fourth the National Gallery has hosted since 1996).

That of course is not quite fair: imagine instead an undiscovered, or little known, Puccini, as I suspect few visitors will be familiar with the Degas pictures in the Burrell. (Or perhaps a chamber work, as the exhibition, with only 30 pieces, is of admirably manageable size: I am a great fan of small exhibitions.) No one of course will now remember the exhibition at the Tate of the whole Burrell Collection in 1924.

As the exhibition literature reveals, there are some 22 works by Degas in the Burrell Collection, all reproduced in the catalogue (alongside others from the NG’s own collection, and one which Burrell gave to another institution), although two weren’t allowed to travel. The 20 that did are described as “13 pastels, three drawings and four oil paintings”, although of course Degas’s obsession with experimentation strains such rigid classifications (where do you put “pencil and oil on paper”?). But much of the point of the show is the extraordinary series of late pastels with their immediate, vibrant colours, so it is a little strange that the press release chooses an early-ish oil (albeit a great one, The Rehearsal, no. 11) as the exhibition image (it was seen in London as recently as 2015, and in the meantime has travelled to Melbourne and Houston). The girl on the cover (above: no. 29) is however more typical; but is she really a “Dancer adjusting her shoulder strap” when she wears no costume?

There is a highly readable, beautifully produced and affordably priced catalogue, which includes the missing works and is obviously intended for a longer shelf-life than just the exhibition. The title page identifies the authors as “Vivien Hamilton, with Julien Domercq and Harriet K. Stratis, contributions by Sarah Herring and Christopher Riopelle”, while the final page gives the exhibition curator as “Julien Domercq, with Christopher Riopelle”, the press release giving this role to Domercq alone. In any case all (and the teams behind them) are to be congratulated.

The press release promises that the catalogue “includes new technical analysis of his pastel works”, and you may imagine that I turned to this with some interest. The literature on Degas is simply enormous, and a great deal of attention has already been given to technical analysis of his work. Stratis’s essay deserves reading as closely as she has evidently looked at the pastels, and she brings a depth of experience from her association for many years with the Art Institute of Chicago which holds one of the great collections of Degas works on paper.

For previous publications on Degas’s pastels the contributions of Anne Maheux are particularly relevant, and it is curious that her small catalogue of the 1988 exhibition in Ottawa included much more scientific information, including chemical analysis of a kind the National Gallery presumably thought too specialised for readers of the new catalogue. Maheux’s approach also included far more about the historical influences on Degas’s interest in the medium (reproducing works from Bassano, Rosalba, La Tour, Chardin, Delacroix and Millet), while the new catalogue simply reproduces the Geneva version of La Tour’s autoportrait à l’œil de bœuf, the reference to which (p. 35) seems to have slipped out of place; it does not seem to relate to any broad discussion (if it is intended to illustrate eighteenth-century pastellists’ non-use of fixatives, it may not be the best example, as La Tour did, unusually for that time, employ them in various ways).

It’s a trivial point – although as the claim is frequently made, and in two of the present essays, a short digression is in order – as my own view is that whatever inspiration Degas derived from the dix-huitième, he used pastel in a completely different way (the exhibition is properly entitled “drawn in colour”; La Tour and his contemporaries painted in pastel). It is true that the early no. 12 comes closest to a painterly technique (chronology is easily lost as the organisers have opted for a thematic arrangement), but to me this is worlds away from the Enlightenment tidiness and immaculate finish of La Tour, the “machiniste merveilleux”. It’s closer in a way to Bassano with its exploration of the fall of light on multiple figures.

Degas Preparation Burrell

No. 12. Preparation for the class. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.238). © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Degas of course was brought up among his father’s collection, which included work by La Tour and Perronneau (my only contribution to Degas studies is the tiniest of footnotes in Theodore Reff’s Burlington Magazine article in May 2011 where I identify one of the pastels Degas had inherited from his father, wrongly attributed to La Tour; it was actually by Ducreux). As Reff points out in his book, Degas: the Artist’s Mind (1976, p. 115), Degas’s friends were also interested in these works: the painter Émile Lévy bought this Perronneau pastel. Curiously the only work which crept into his own pictures was the Perronneau oil portrait, formerly known as Mme Miron  (Dominique d’Arnoult’s re-identification of the sitter as Mme Hogguer seems unconvincing as the eyes are a different colour), also part of his father’s collection; it appears in the background of Degas’s pastel portrait of his sister Thérèse of around 1869. But to me much the most revealing thing is Degas’s rather clumsy attempt to copy a La Tour pastel of an unknown Homme en habit marron. The original (left, below; no. J.46.3192 in the online Dictionary of pastellists), again from his father’s collection, is now in the musée Jacquemart-André (an attribution to Valade has recently, but incorrectly, been suggested; in 1918 however the experts thought the copy was an original eighteenth-century work):

Degas’s copy (right), now in the musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, was, bizarrely, attempted in oil. It cannot be explained as juvenilia: his father only bought the La Tour in 1873, when Degas was already 29. What it shows is that, at heart, Degas was no dix-huitiémiste: his work took off when he was liberated from the control and precision of the art of the past, and his pictures became literally inundated with colour and light. As you see triumphantly in the current show.

Or at least you may be able to, once your eyes accommodate to the low levels of lighting permitted by the conservators. For pensioners like me, this is a real struggle; and I think museums showing exhibitions of works on paper should seriously consider offering an evening with access restricted to the over 60s where the light levels are increased from the 37 lux I measured this morning to say 75 lux. For 2-3 hours that will have no material impact on the light log for these works. It is however worth noting that light damage for Degas pastels is a far more serious problem than for most eighteenth century pastels, bar the few that made extensive use of lake pigments; Degas’s use of recent aniline dyes is probably responsible. And while it is difficult to assess the impact under exhibition conditions, I suspect quite a lot of wall-power has by now been lost. Would we today agree with the reviewer in the Spectator in 1924 who thought Les Bijoux (no. 10) the best?

The catalogue’s production values and price are however only achieved by the omission of the critical apparatus that one used to expect from all exhibitions in major galleries (that for the 1988 exhibition in the Met, New York is exemplary, and even now available online at no charge). This is particularly regrettable for the Burrell pastels as there is no single place to trace their numerous discussions in the literature or even their exhibition history since the publication of the Lemoisne catalogue raisonné – before most of us were born. There is a brief mention of the importance of the frames which Degas designed for his work, but none is illustrated. (They stand in contrast to Durand-Ruel’s penchant for taking old Louis XV or Régence frames, often stripping back the gilding; and because Degas’s pictures have a different aspect ratio than the art of the ancien régime, slips, often quite wide, have had to be used.) There is no index. I may have missed it, but nowhere could I find the artist’s name given in full (elsewhere in the gallery, and throughout the press material, the full Hilaire-Germain- continues). Since the titles of the works are rarely Degas’s own, it is perhaps excusable that they are given only in English (in contrast to Tate’s practice in 1924: does this say something too about assumptions about visitors’ knowledge?).

The essays on Degas and on Burrell are both fascinating. To our astonishment we learn (from Hamilton) that Burrell never displayed his Degas at home, preferring his mediaeval tapestries (of which a full catalogue raisonné has just been published). Curieux indeed. Domercq’s biographical note on Degas manages in a few deft strokes to distinguish Degas from his cohort of Impressionists; in observing that “the medium almost becomes a subject in itself” he summarises the exhibition astutely. I’ve hijacked his quote from Julie Manet’s Journal for my title (I can’t help mentioning, from the same source two years before, 1897, Julie’s trip to Orléans, which she found a really sad town, lifted only by a Perronneau I’ve discussed before in this blog, and their version of the National Gallery’s Drouais of Mme de Pompadour).

Domercq may regret mentioning the artist’s anti-Semitism, which, in the current fevered mood of political correctness, is likely to be picked up by reviewers (most of France thought Dreyfus guilty, although Degas’s position was extreme), while it is as irrelevant to the brilliance of these pastels as would be the politics of a mathematician who proved the Riemann hypothesis to the validity of the demonstration (remember however Michael Dummett’s shock on discovering Frege’s diaries). Or nearly so: perhaps you take the line that Degas’s art is a commentary on the hardship faced by ballet dancers, a sort of social realism – while of course these abstract works of pure colour, still lifes in motion, bear the same relationship to this subject matter as Puccini’s waves of luscious sound do to Mürger’s novel. Degas was no Zola.

Degas’s views on Dreyfus offer perhaps further evidence of his eccentricity. This was a painter who, astonishingly, detested flowers; and, for someone whose art involved constant innovation and experiment, it is even more surprising (remember that a section of the exhibition is entitled “Modern Life”) to discover that he had a strong dislike of recent inventions such as aeroplanes or even bicycles, and dismissed the telephone as “ridicule”.

But there are a couple of other things that the catalogue does not discuss. Burrell was a canny Scot who knew a thing or two about transportation (that’s where his money came from, and his brother was an engineer). In the terms of his will he stipulated that his collection shouldn’t be loaned outside the UK, since he was worried about the hazards of moving precious and fragile works of art. While the gallery is closed for rebuilding, in order to be able to lend the objects to exhibitions worldwide, the owners needed to pass an act of parliament to override his wishes. Of course that wasn’t required for loans to London (there have been previous loans, for example five pastels were lent to Liverpool in 1989: nos. 9, 10, 19, 23, 32), but the Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) Act 2014 has permitted some of the Degas pictures to travel overseas already. Four were lent to the major retrospective Degas: A New Vision held in Melbourne and Houston 2016–17; of these, condition issues apply in particular to the two pastels (nos. 17, 19). Much has been said (look up the press and parliamentary records of the debates and committees leading up to the 2014 act: here’s a link to the views of the previous NG director, who was also renowned for his opposition to popular blockbusters) about the spirit of Burrell’s bequest, and how transport has improved – but is air travel for pastels today safer than sea transport for tapestries in Burrell’s day?

19 Red skirts

No. 19. The Red Ballet Skirts. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.243) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

When no. 19 returned from Houston it was reported that undulations in the lower area appeared to have increased. That is after at least 20,000 miles in the air (apart from the 440 miles trip to Liverpool, and of course the original journey from France) – and before the second 700 road miles round trip to London (it had already made that journey in 1924 when Burrell lent his collection to the Tate). No one knows how to compare the dangers to pastel (see my earlier blog post) from travelling by air (where the main hazard is the possibility of a few severe shocks in the cargo handling area, while the constant vibration during flight doesn’t register on shock meters and so is usually ignored) with the very frequent but lower shock levels throughout a road journey, even with air-ride suspension and foam-lined cases. Whether polyurethane or polyethylene is the better type of foam is disputed between their proponents as vigorously as the conflict of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians, but to me both factions are Pollyannas.

The National Gallery did pioneering work on methods of crating pastels some twenty years ago (Saunders & al. 1999: see my Prolegomena for a full discussion and detailed references), demonstrating that their double-case system was better than the Art Institute of Chicago’s triple-case system, while acknowledging that you couldn’t optimise the vibration damping for both upper and lower tier trays. Curiously the National Gallery are using the same two-tier system for transport to this exhibition, even though the logical conclusion – that a single case is even better – has been adopted by other institutions for pastels (it’s also easier to move these by hand than a 54 kg double crate). As readers of this blog will know I am yet to be convinced that the problems of transporting pastels have been solved. (There are differences between 18th century practices and those of Degas, but there are also common issues.) Nor can I explain why it was decided to ship one of the pastels (no. 32) vertically while the others travelled horizontally. (The conservator recommended addressing the tension problem by tapping out the keys in the stretcher; I find it difficult to see how to do so without endangering any loose pastel. The vertical/horizontal/45°/10° debate continues among specialists, whatever the tension problems.)

The new catalogue also is coy about questions of condition which of course overlap with decisions about suitability to lend. (Here’s a paradox: do you lend the work which is in perfect condition (and so has everything to lose) or the one which has already lost its fleur (demonstrating its vulnerability)?) Of no. 23, for example, we are told only that “this pastel has a wonderfully dense textured surface.”

23 Theatre box

No. 23. Women in a Theatre Box. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.231) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Perhaps that is because it was unfixed; the pastel was however worked very densely and heavily compacted. But there is substantial fading of colour and suggestions of previous mould and possibly water damage in parts. And when the pastel travelled to Liverpool in 1989 (although not mentioned in the catalogue or the new conservation report), there was only a 3mm gap between the glass and the pastel surface, leading to a substantial transfer of material to the inside of the glass. You can see this from a photograph taken after the pastel’s return from Liverpool in 1989:

Burrell 35_231 1989

Photograph taken in 1989 reproduced in Norville-Day & al. 1993

The transfer of pastel to the inside of the glass has been known since the earliest times (see for example the 1747 Oudry letter I quote in the Prolegomena: “le transport détache toujours quelque partie qui s’attache à la glace et ternit l’ouvrage”), but the mechanism for it is not fully understood (static from perspex or other polymeric glazing substitutes, or just protective tape on the outside of traditional glass, can cause it, but it can arise without either). This outing would have been a good opportunity to add to our knowledge, but I am told by the National Gallery that no scientific investigation (e.g. involving deglazing) of the kind conducted and published after the Liverpool exhibition is taking place.

Since it is reproduced in the catalogue, I mention also what may be the most important work in the collection (after The Rehearsal), namely the portrait of Edmond Duranty. This is executed in a curious mixture of media using pastel and a paint described in the present catalogue as gouache but in earlier sources as tempera (perhaps using the white rather than the yolk of the egg). Whatever the medium, it has not adhered to the support, and so what (for me at least) would have been one of the stars of the show has prudently been omitted (“le pastel ne veut pas être tourmenté” in the words of a mid-eighteenth century critic). According to the review in the The Nation & The Athenæum, 29 March 1924:

The Burrell Collection, which is at present on loan at the Tate Gallery, consists mainly of pictures by French and Dutch artists of the latter half of the nineteenth century. There are several pictures by Degas, not, on the whole, at his best, except in the fine portrait of M. Duranty.

One should be careful at drawing inferences from photographs, but a comparison of a detail from the reproduction in Ian Dunlop’s 1979 monograph (the earliest colour image I could find) and the present catalogue (I am informed that the image in the new catalogue was taken in 2009) does seem to show some loss of definition:

Duranty 1979v2017

No. 2. Edmond Duranty. The Burrell Collection (not exhibited). Details reproduced from photographs taken before 1979 (left) and in 2009 (right)

But some of this may be due to different quality reproduction. (Incidentally I don’t approve of bleeding reproductions over the centre fold.) You can’t assess condition from photographs (unless the losses have become literally catastrophic). (An Artwatch sequence of images of a Degas pastel in Denver which appears to show a loss of pastel in a sequence of images should be treated with similar caution; the same pastel appears in the rather larger Degas exhibition opening in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge next month – an event which will surely be of interest to all visitors to the National Gallery show, but is seemingly not mentioned at all in the NG catalogue.)

This isn’t the place for a full debate about the wisdom of moving pastels, nor about the sharing of information and scientific data when it happens. Modern labour law prevents us from insisting that pastels “be carried on a man’s back”, as another canny Scot, the Duke of Hamilton, insisted (Hamilton Palace was some 40 miles from Edinburgh). But perhaps these are issues that should be debated, since there is an expectation at the Burrell that the National Gallery will reciprocally lend its Degas pictures when the museum reopens.

Postscript – 25 September 2017

I’ve now received revised information from the National Gallery indicating that conservation findings from the present exhibition will be published at some stage. This will helpfully supplement the now rather old findings of Norville-Day and Saunders mentioned above.

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From → Art history

2 Comments
  1. I haven’t yet seen a review of the Getty show. Were you asked to participate in the catalogue (and if not why not)? Will you be going to L.A.? I assume being pastels this is one show that is unlikely to travel.

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