Picasso Looks at Degas

Via NY Times article Who’s the Voyeur Now, Picasso?, by Karen Rosenberg

Degas and Picasso make an odd couple, a Realist-Impressionist and a restless Modernist born nearly 50 years apart. But their relationship, as seen through the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s “Picasso Looks at Degas,” isn’t the tempestuous kind typical of blockbuster shows. Neither a partnership (“Picasso and Degas”) nor a competition (“Picasso/Degas”), it’s about one artist regarding another, calmly and from a distance.

The title tells us that Picasso is the subject, Degas the object, but it’s not always clear who’s doing more looking. Degas, after all, is the notorious voyeur, whose fly-on-the-wall views of women bathing, dancers resting between scenes, and prostitutes awaiting customers are in turn, in this exhibition, surveyed by Picasso.

The Clark is the only North American stop for the show, which runs through mid-September and is the perfect coda to a summer of Picasso in New York’s museums. Its organizers, the Picasso expert Elizabeth Cowling and the Degas scholar Richard Kendall, have wrangled some extraordinary loans and assembled some inspired pairings (as well as an excellent catalog). In the process they have found a revealing new angle on Picasso and exposed Degas as a proto-Modernist, if not quite on par with Cézanne.

We don’t know whether the artists ever met, although their studios in Paris were just blocks from each other in the first decade or so of the 20th century. As a young artist in Spain, Picasso encountered reproductions of Degas’s work; in Paris he had many opportunities to see it in person. But his most intimate acquaintance with Degas came only after the elder artist’s death in 1917, when the contents of his studio — including many unfinished works — were displayed and sold in a series of very public auctions.

Left, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. Right, Museo del Novecento, Milan, Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the Clark the raw and unpolished version of Degas is much in evidence — a refreshing change from the sanitized, Impressionist-focused presentation to which we are accustomed. The show gives us Degas as Picasso saw him: an artist with a classical hand and a modern eye, who idolized Ingres but indulged in coarser and more outré forms of eroticism.

The show’s first few galleries delve a little too deeply into the early lives of both artists in an effort to show parallels: Picasso and Degas were strong draftsmen, with overbearing fathers who pushed them to specialize in portraiture. The works of interest here — there aren’t many — include Picasso’s expressive sketch of his sister Lola and a preparatory drawing for Degas’s gloomy group portrait “The Bellelli Family.”

After this false start the show begins in earnest with Parisian cafe scenes by both. From the Musée d’Orsay comes Degas’s marvelously bleak painting of a woman slumped over her glass, “In a Café (L’Absinthe)”; it hangs next to a boozy blue-period Picasso from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal.”

Yet the link to Degas feels a bit forced: To Picasso, Degas was one cafegoer among many; a small oil sketch of a male cabaret audience, “Stuffed Shirts,” finds Picasso emulating Toulouse-Lautrec.

Two striking paintings of dark-eyed women, Picasso’s “Portrait of Benedetta Canals” and Degas’s “Woman With an Umbrella (Berthe Jeantaud),” make a deeper connection. Degas knew Mme. Canals, who was a friend of Picasso’s lover Fernande Olivier, but the point made by these paintings is that he and Picasso were acquainted through Goya.

Among the exhibition’s numerous images of women at their toilette, no third-party introduction is needed. Picasso’s blocky nudes of around 1906 respond, clearly enough, to the physical awkwardness and perverse sensuality of Degas’s crouched bathers. And decades later his violent painting “Nude Wringing Her Hair” (1952) picks up on the masochism inherent in Degas’s paintings and drawings of women yanking brushes through their tresses.

But as another pairing shows, Picasso also grasped Degas’s sympathy for working women. In 1904 he made a painting after Degas’s “Woman Ironing,” translating the earlier work’s sturdy Parisian laundress into a pinched figure with a bony, raised shoulder.

He could sometimes be oblivious to subtleties in Degas, a point reinforced by two sculptures of pregnant women. Degas’s small bronze statuette bends slightly at the waist, cradling her belly in her palms. Picasso’s version, a straight-backed figure with milk jars for bosoms, is more grotesque than tender.

The show includes many other small bronzes by Degas, some of which were cast after his death from wax molds found in his studio. They relate closely to the paintings and drawings, emphasizing a tendency (shared by Picasso) to slip back and forth between mediums.

Degas’s most famous sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” anchors a brilliant, and mischievous, grouping in the next gallery. This snub-nosed, pubescent diva is flanked by two Picasso paintings: one of a dwarf in a tutu and another of a come-hither nude in the style of his “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Both figures ape the little dancer’s pose, with their hands behind their backs.

Other sculptures and works on paper flesh out the ballet theme, including two luscious Degas pastels from the Clark’s collection that show dancers catching their breath in the wings. Picasso had his own reasons for lurking backstage; drawings and family photographs remind you that one of his wives was the ballerina Olga Khokhlova.

The Picassos here, like most of the works in the previous galleries, date from the first two decades of the 20th century. At this point you may start to wonder whether Degas had any real hold on Picasso after that time. The answer is in the next and final gallery, and it will surprise you.

On view is a series of 39 etchings made by Picasso in 1971, just two years before his death. It’s a lucid, highly specific response to a group of monotypes by Degas, known informally as the “brothel series” and based on the close observation of Parisian prostitutes.

Only a few of these louche, smeary prints are at the Clark, but you can see reproductions commissioned by the dealer Ambroise Vollard (who, in all likelihood, introduced Picasso to this furtively circulated body of work). Picasso was taken with the monotypes, and in the late 1950s he finally had the opportunity to buy some of them. He already owned a photograph of Degas, which he kept in his Cannes studio.

The women in Degas’s pictures are scantily clad but not very active; what they do, mostly, is wait. In Picasso’s etchings they’re Gorgon-faced exhibitionists who intimidate potential clients with enlarged, mazelike genitals. More shocking, though, is the presence of Degas as a recurring character in this oversexed narrative. (And it is most certainly Degas; the titles mention him by name.)

He’s most often shown in profile, peering in from the edge of the composition with wide saucerlike eyes. In one scene he has his hands clasped behind his back, as does the prostitute standing in front of him — a pair of “Little Dancers.” In another he’s there twice, as customer and spectator.

What, exactly, is Picasso doing here? Why, at the end of his life, did he summon an artist associated with the 19th century? Was he using Degas, who was reportedly celibate, to satirize his own sexually voracious reputation? Identifying as an outsider, a voyeur on the art world of the 1960s and ’70s? Letting it all hang out, a privilege of old age?

Maybe he was simply reminding us that art is about finding distance, even in close proximity. And that Degas had been in the room, with him, all along.

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