March 18, 2012

Art Review: A rare look at the grumpy, elusive Degas


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Works in “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist” include “Le Lecon de Danse (The Dancing Lesson),” pastel on monoprint on paper, circa 1877 ...

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... “Danseuse Assise (Seated Dancer),” pastel on joined paper mounted on board, 1894 ...

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WHEN: Through May 28

WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Closed on March 30. COST: $12; $10 for seniors and students with ID; $6 for ages 13 to 17; free for ages 12 and younger; free for all after 5 p.m. Fridays.

INFO: 775-6148;

It was a great curatorial move to place the print "The Singer" next to the "Dancing Lesson." In both, a strong vertical runs from the top of the image down to the central figure's left-oriented face. Degas uses this device to control the viewer's eye as well to start a process that both follows and reveals a visual narrative of gesture, legibility and punctuation (highly sophisticated formalism). We not only learn about the performers but what's expected of us -- the viewers -- as well.

The stage lights hit the singer from below. It's a well-rehearsed scene, and we know how to play our role. It's her moment in the limelight maybe, but she's there for us.

Berthe Morisot reported that Degas once said "the study of nature was worthless, since painting is an art of conventions." While this might sound like a rejection of realism, Degas is hinting that social and cultural realities require study, since without them, forms have no meaning. This prefigures cubism, pop art and many other important strands of contemporary art -- including abstraction.

Arguably, Degas did as much as anyone to lead the way to contemporary painting. He's that important.

If you go to "The Private Impressionist" expecting scads of large oils and famous paintings, you might be disappointed. If you go to learn more about Degas, you are in for a treat.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:


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Additional Photos

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... and “Edgar Degas: Self Portrait,” etching and drypoint from canceled plate, 1857.


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