Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nudely Naked: The Through-Line from Degas to Van Gogh to Matisse

"Look out my window, look at the way things are
Just wonder how, how did things ever get this far ...
Vince Taylor used to live here, nobody's heard of him,
(Ain't that a shame), just who he was, just where he fits in."
                                     lyrics from "Goin' Down Geneva" by Van Morrison

Last Friday, October 21, The New York Times published an article by Karen Rosenberg called "An Unblushing Career of Undressing Women," about an exhibition called "Degas and The Nude" (which she says, only half joking, should have been called "Degas and the Naked") at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (p. C25).  It got me to thinking, with Van Morrison echoing in my mind, "just where he fits in."

There's a distinction familiar to art students and their teachers, a distinction between "nude" and "naked." The nude in art history is often Venus, Diana, Susannah (and the elders), an odalisque in an inaccessible harem, mythological, fantastical, glorious, nearly air-brushed, and not anything you'd see in your own world. Here is a lovely, smooth-skinned example from Ingres, the master of the nude, called "The Bather of Valpincon" from 1808:

She is perfect. (I should add that David Hockney has traced this perfection to its -- very likely -- source. There was an article in The New Yorker, "The Looking Glass," by Lawrence Weschler on January 31, 2000, which traced the beginnings of Hockney's theory that painters including Ingres, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Hals, Chardin, and Vélazquez all must have employed lenses or some form of camera obscura to achieve their photographic images. This article was then followed in 2001 by the book Secret Knowledge. In both, Hockney tells us that he suspects that Ingres must have used lenses ... how else would he be able to have such an assured line with no preparatory drawings, why else would the drawings be so small, and, I would add, how else could he reproduce that back over and over again, here and in the "Turkish Bath"?). Ingres draws fantabulous nudes. But Degas's women are naked. (And after enough time has passed, Hockney argues, with Cezanne, the lenses are discarded for a new kind of art and, as Weschler reports, then "[deliberate] awkwardness returns to European painting, for the first time, really, since Giotto," and continues on through Cubism). And awkwardness = nakedness, no?. In her article on the Boston MFA's Degas show, Rosenberg writes that the museum unflinchingly presents "the raunchiest of his 'brothel monotypes' alongside the the more genteel voyeurism of his women at their toilette ... His working girls are plump and slovenly, with tufts of dark hair between their thighs. (Even Manet never went that far) ... [but] In Degas naturalism cancels out voyeurism."  So, to finish the explanation between "nude" and "naked," Degas's women are naked. And we can see that, exactly, here, in The Tub," from 1886:

This does look like someone, anyone, that we might know .... And I began to see something. I have been looking at Van Gogh's nudes (there are not very many, and the ones I love come from his time in Paris, in 1886 and 1887).  And I began to wonder if Van Gogh might have seen Degas's women in Paris then. And then the new biography, Van Gogh: The Life arrived (by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, New York: Random House, 2011). And yes, Van Gogh saw the Impressionists in 1886, but was not impressed with them as a group: "one is bitterly, bitterly disappointed, and thinks them slovenly, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, bad in color, everything that's miserable" and he says, as opposed to most of the painters in the group, "I have faith in color" (519).  And yet, and yet, the biography notes that Van Gogh "commented favorably only on a suite of nude women, in pastel, by Degas (520).  Yes! he did. Here is Van Gogh's "Study for Reclining Female Nude" from 1887 in Paris; it's difficult not to see Degas in this:

There is no idealized goddess to be found here. This woman is naked, formed from rough pencil strokes. Her skin is wrinkled, her breasts are not perfectly-formed oranges, she is a bit uncomfortable and awkward. This is a body, not a dream.

So then, I wondered, because I have been doing this series of nudes with some references back to Henri Matisse, whether he refers to Degas and Van Gogh.  Degas, one feels, would have been inescapable, given Matisse's contacts and Degas's reputation. But Van Gogh was relatively unknown.  In 1899, Matisse bought a Van Gogh drawing from Vollard. Years later, in 1945, Matisse would say that "Van Gogh and Gauguin were ignored. A wall had to be knocked down in order to get through" (p. 158, Matisse on Art, edited by Jack Flam (revised edition, Berkeley: University of California, 1995).  See for yourself; is this "Seated Nude" from 1906 (she's looking pretty naked!) knocking down that wall?

No comments:

Post a Comment