TAMPA — Was Edgar Degas interested in beauty? That's the question rattling around my head after seeing "Degas: Form, Movement and the Antique" at the Tampa Museum of Art. He was incapable of creating art that wasn't seriously beautiful. But his ideas about his subject matter and how it was composed — rather than how it was executed technically — were so different from figurative work up to that point, which idealized Very Important People who were famous in contemporary, mythical or historical life.
More than half of Degas' output was of dancers, mostly from the Paris Opera House, who were called in their day "opera rats." He also loved horses. And women taking baths. Not VIP material.
Many of his paintings of these muses are familiar to us and greatly loved, and for someone to question his interest in beauty probably seems heretical. The girls in tutus look so lovely!
The question will, I hope, seem less so when you see the Tampa Museum show, which has 47 works, about three-fourths of them bronze sculptures and most of those dancers. The rest are paintings and drawings.
The bronzes are beautiful, but none of them make the young women themselves beautiful. Most don't even have facial features. They're all about the body.
For bodies fascinated Degas, especially those in motion, so of course: horses and ballerinas.
Degas (1834-1917) revered the classical tradition in painting. He came into his maturity as an artist when an assault against aesthetic tradition was under way in Paris, the center of the art world at the time. That assault by a band of renegade artists would become a revolution known as impressionism. He had gradually abandoned the time-honored academic themes of history and religion by the 1870s in favor of contemporary bourgeois, or even low, life in Paris, an interest he shared with the impressionists. He also deviated from traditional composition and color combinations. And he was friends with impressionists such as Renoir.
But he really wasn't an impressionist and distanced himself from the movement and its endorsement of plein air (outdoor) painting, spontaneity and a primary interest in representing the play of light on a thing rather than the thing itself.
Sculpture was a private medium for Degas though no secret; anyone who visited his studio saw them. They were made in wax and/or clay formed over metal armatures, and Degas continually fiddled with them. He wasn't interested in their having a finished look. They were a way for him to understand how a body arranges itself.
The most famous and most finished is Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. It is the only sculpture he publicly exhibited (and only once, in 1881), which is probably the reason it looks complete.
We adore this adolescent girl who was officially a nobody yet seems to hold herself with dignified disdain for such judgments; head high, her pose awkwardly endearing. She isn't pretty, yet everything about her portrayal is spot-on.
An important point the museum makes clear in this show is that the Dancer you see isn't the one Degas created. Nor are the other sculptures. It and all the originals now reside in the National Gallery of Art. The bronzes were made from Degas' wax and clay sculptures after he died.
The decision to do so by his friends and heirs has created controversy. Critics believe, with some justification, that Degas never intended to have these studies transferred to the solidity and permanence of bronze since he never had any cast in metal during his life and had talked of his aversion to it. But he did have several cast in plaster, a step in the bronzing process, which were displayed in his home.
The ones on view are part of a larger group authorized by the heirs and made in a documented, numbered edition of 22 sets with 73 sculptures in each set. They were made using the lost wax method, which usually means that the wax molds are destroyed in the process. Degas' originals, however, were saved because the foundry owner and caster made new wax molds so Degas' wouldn't have to be sacrificed. They remained at the foundry until about 1955, when their existence came to light and they were purchased by Paul Mellon, a wealthy philanthropist whose family founded the National Gallery and gave it the originals after Mellon's death.
Something we have to understand: Practices and standards differ in different times. Casting sculptures after an artist's death was not unusual in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Auguste Rodin, for example, authorized the French government to do so on his behalf. During his lifetime, he took little interest in the casting process and certainly didn't supervise it.
But every case is unique.
Here's what I think. The bronze sculptures will never have the authenticity of the waxes. But those will probably never travel and aren't even permanently displayed because of their fragility. Degas' hands didn't touch these later works and he didn't bless them, but they were done and they're here, mostly in museum collections, and give more of us a chance to understand Degas' genius.
What they lack is part of that genius, in which the artist used real materials for some of the works. Little Dancer was dressed in real clothes and had real hair, and Degas colored the wax to simulate skin tones. He could be considered the father of conceptual art for such a radical and avant-garde approach. Except for the tutu and hair ribbon, none of those details exist on the bronzes.
Still, I regard them as art because they were made as if Degas were alive and watching the process; they weren't prettied up but were left as they were found, which is why you'll notice that most of them are rather rough looking.
They seem to suspend time, capturing the moment when a dancer's leg in an arabesque or a rearing horse can go no higher. Some celebrate the awkwardness we force on our bodies as we dry them off or take a stretch. Each work is a single gesture, each an essence, none with a context beyond itself.
Director Todd Smith and curator and Degas scholar Joseph Czestochowski didn't need to do more than bring in the Degas art, but they did. The work is put within the framework of the museum's fine antiquities collection with wall texts and photographs documenting the interest in them during Degas' time and their influence on his art.
It's a wonderful show. The sculptures do dominate the two-dimensional works. There are several fine paintings — but none of his masterpieces — and drawings that support Degas' fascination with the body in motion.
Wall texts give you a lot of useful information, especially about the way these bronzes came into existence. It's a fascinating story.
Degas created beautiful art, but I think he was more interested in truth. Some would say they're the same thing. Here, they are.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.