Saturday, March 1, 2008

Degas in Portland

The Portland, Oregon Art Museum has a terrific exhibition of work by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Forain until May 11, 2008. There are 110 pieces in the show, themed around ballet dancers in Paris in the late 1800’s.

The Degas pieces are spectacular. These are from his later work, after he “specialized” in dancers. The painted and drawn ballerinas are charming, bright and colorful, “easy on the eyes.” He certainly understood the female figure of that day, which is different from today’s. Professional dancers today who looked like Degas’ healthy specimens would be considered “beefy.” If you go to see pretty ballerina pictures you won’t be disappointed.

But I think most of these paintings are not about ballerinas at all. They are about the empty space that the dancers define. The ballerinas are just a device used for the difficult job of depicting three-dimensional space, empty space, on a two dimensional surface. How can that be done? It is quite a puzzle and Degas solved it, and it is amazing to see how.

His works are arranged chronologically and one can detect a period in the early 1870’s where he seems to have discovered the secret of depicting empty space. There is one piece in particular, Musicians in the Orchestra of 1872, that announces what is to come. We look over the heads of the dark, silhouetted musicians to the dancers some 50 feet away, with nothing between the musicians and the dancers but air. How do we know there is 50 feet of empty space there? I’m not sure, but it’s there. Size constancy is one cue for depth, but that wouldn't seem to be sufficient. There is no linear perspective and in fact the dancers are in front of an ostensibly flat stage curtain. So where does the 50 feet of space come from? I don’t know. It’s a miracle of painting.

Next to that piece are some paintings from a little later, by which time he had clearly caught on to the technique of painting bold, vivid emptiness. I don’t remember which piece was next, and I don’t think it was The Ballet Rehearsal of 1873, shown here, but it was something like that, where at least one third of the canvas depicts nothing but thin air. How does he make that empty space so real, so palpable? Again I can’t say exactly how it's done, but see for yourself. And talk about bold! A picture with "nothing" filling over half the scene? How could you even think of that?

There are about a half dozen ballerina bronzes, which Degas did only in wax and somebody else cast them after he died. The point of them, I believe, is, like the paintings, to show empty space. How can you sculpt empty space? It’s amazing to see how it’s done as you walk around these small sculpltures (no more than 18" high).

Whoever curated the Degas collection surely must have understood the “empty space” theme, but oddly, there is not a hint of it on any of the printed legends accompanying the works. I never use the auditory guides in museums, as their inanity just makes me want to scream, but it is possible that the empty space theme is mentioned on those devices.

I was most impressed by Degas. But I also greatly enjoyed the few posters, paintings and drawings by Toulouse-Lautrec. I like the colors and the composition, and his technique of exaggeration, such as by putting the dancer’s leg up so high that you wonder if it is connected to her body, as in this poster, which was on display at the PAM.

I was less enamored by the Forain work. He seemed to be more of an illustrator and I read that he was at one time a political cartoonist, and his drawings and paintings have both a cartoony look and the sociopolitical “message” of an editorialist. Many scenes show a sleazy fatcat producer fawning over a young ballerina. Apparently, in the late 1800’s Paris dance scene, girls had to find a financial “sponsor” to support their dance career, and it is obvious from Forain’s drawings that the older men were interested in more than just philanthropy. The women’s plight is tragic and depressing and I have to say it was an emotional downer to look at all these scenes, however handsomely they are drawn.

The rest of the PAM is worth a look too. Their permanent collection is strong in works of the last two centuries and in 20th century sculpture. The PAM is one of my three favorite art museums in the western U.S. (with Seattle and Tucson). Find PAM at

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