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Degas exhibit coming to Tampa Museum of Art

TAMPA — The Tampa Museum of Art has scored another major exhibition less than a year after opening its new building on the downtown waterfront: more than 40 works by 19th century French artist Edgar Degas.

"Degas: Form, Movement and the Antique" will run March 12 through June 19, director Todd Smith announced Wednesday. The works will consist of bronze sculptures along with paintings and drawings. And, yes, his famous dancers will be among them, Smith said.

Henri Matisse, the great 20th century master, headlined the first season at the museum. And as with the Matisse show, this will be the first west-central Florida exhibition featuring works only by Degas (pronounced day-GAH).

"This show is about Degas' sculpture first and is designed to complement the museum's excellent antiquities collection," Smith said. "Degas was a radical, but he was still tied to the academic approach to art. We will use works from our collection that point to the inspiration he received from ancient Greece."

As with the Matisse show, Smith continues the museum's exploration of 20th century modernism in its schedule of exhibitions, taking that movement back to its roots in 19th century impressionism and going forward to contemporary art that has evolved from it.

The Degas exhibition is "the largest undertaking in the museum's history," Smith said. Rather than borrowing an existing traveling show or partnering with another museum, Smith is curating it with Joseph Czestochowski, an author and authority on Degas' sculpture who is with the International Arts, which organizes major exhibitions with scholarly catalogs. Smith said loans will come from "20 to 25 major institutions across the country."

It's a challenging exhibition for the museum, which doesn't have a large permanent collection of its own that can create the lending reciprocity many other museums have with one another.

Degas (1834-1917), for all his popularity then and now, does not fit easily into a category. He came to maturity as an artist during the emergence of impressionism and is always given that label. He frequently participated in group shows with his contemporaries, such as Claude Monet, but he differed in major ways from impressionist precepts — quick, thick, spontaneous brushstrokes that suggest rather than realistically delineate a subject, and the use of unblended colors that create an optical illusion of blending together — and rejected that description of his work.

"No art is less spontaneous than mine," he said. "What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters."

Though largely self-taught, he admired the traditions of Academic painting, which was the accepted style for most of the 19th century. It dictated the use of many layers of thin oil paint, meticulously blended and built up, that produced a smooth surface devoid of any traces of a brushstroke. Academic artists were required to master drawing before they ever put paint to canvas, and their themes were expected to be stirring historical or religious narratives. Degas' idol was Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), the standard-bearer for Academic orthodoxy, and Degas began his career emulating him.

But he, like many other young painters, found newer inspiration. He derided the en plein air practice of taking one's easel and palette outside, but he, too, ventured beyond history books for subject matter, choosing to portray the people and life around him in Paris. And the way he portrayed them broke new ground.

The dancers, for example, are often seen off stage, practicing in rehearsal halls or in the wings during a performance. He saw them as working women, like the laundresses he also used as subjects. They don't assume the artificial poses of the classical ideal. His composition is often startling, at odd angles or dramatically cropped. Degas was obsessed with the way a body moves, and he put his humans — and also, famously, horses, another favorite subject — in motion, presented in their daily milieu. If he sometimes, to our eyes, prettied them up, he importantly used his academic prowess to give new life to naturalism.

Degas was also a sculptural renegade. Unlike every other artist working in that medium, he didn't create sculptures for commercial purposes. He exhibited just one of his sculptures, the iconic Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, only once, at an impressionist group show in 1881. He continued to sculpt for most of his life but for his own pleasure and interest in exploring and experimenting with figuration. He worked in wax and clay and fiddled with his figures constantly, never committing one to the permanence of bronze casting. When he died, friends and family found more than 150 small pieces in his studio, many in stages of deterioration. Seventy-three were in a condition for casting, which was done in 1918, and only 23 complete sets were made.

Smith has secured a number of those bronzes but cannot yet confirm that the exhibition will include Little Dancer.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Degas exhibit coming to Tampa Museum of Art 10/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 12:54am]

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