Sunday, October 30, 2011

Degas and the Virtue of Never Being Finished

"He is like a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up."

- Paul Valéry (1871-1945), writing about Degas -

So I went to spend some quality time worshiping in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection today (it feels like a chapel to me, so I consider it to be one). When I got there, the room was crowded, so I ambled upstairs to check out the Phillips' exhibit on Degas. I wasn't particularly excited about it. I like Van Gogh, how you can see his wrestling with insanity in the frenzied lines of his paintings. I like Rembrandt, how he uses light to channel your focus and create a sort of dream-like state, how he often tells a full story with really very few subjects on the canvas. I like Kandinsky and his use of mathematical/musical/fractal themes and bright colors. I like Rothko's outright obsession with intense, intense colors. As far as I was concerned, Degas was a Guy Who Painted Chicks In Fluffy Dresses.

This, of course, is why we have art galleries... so that we're pushed to think more deeply about the image in front of us, if for no other reason than we can see the artist's brush strokes and are forced to confront that this image is here because a person made it become. When an image becomes clichéd to us, it feels as though it has always been. We forget there was a process, and we forget that there was a moment at the beginning where the artist wasn't at all sure they knew what they were doing. We forget that they were human... that maybe they never really knew what they were doing.

The most striking thing to me about the Degas exhibit is that it consists largely of studies and sketches that he did of dancers and nudes, with the same images again, and again, and again. Dancers resting, dancers standing, dancers stretching, women bathing... the walls are covered with half finished renderings of the same few models in the same few poses, over and over and over. I'm not used to this, from the Phillips or from any other exhibit that I've seen. I'm used to seeing one or two studies hanging near finished works so that you get some idea of the artist's process... plus it feels pleasantly sneaky to think that you're seeing something they didn't intend to be seen.

To make the exhibit largely about the studies themselves, to center it around partially finished work, seemed very profound to me. Maybe this is only due to the fact that what the Phillips has of Degas' work is largely sketches, but I felt like it was something deeper, like it was about Degas himself, or about art more generally, or maybe about humanity. Or maybe I was thinking about it too much... but here's what I was thinking...

I can't find a really good internet rendering of the image at the top of this post, but that image is the first one that took my breath away. The effect is better served by the image at right. As with the rest of the sketches, there's a lot of vagueness... scribbled lines, colors, shading not really worked out... but then BLAM, there are shoulders, a face, an arm, real enough to look as though they were photographed. The stark, surprising beauty of that had far more of an effect on me than any of the other finished paintings. I felt like I was witnessing a living being emerge from the paper... the creative process of a man who died almost 100 years ago in a continual state of re-birth on the page.

After I got over my initial reaction, the first thing I thought was "here's the dignity in not finishing", and the second thing I thought was "...and the dignity in starting even when you're not sure you're ready". What these sketches suggest to me is that Degas was so thoroughly committed to his process that finishing things was almost a sidebar. The point was to keep trying, to keep showing up at the page, to keep attempting to render these images that he found so compelling, to keep trying to make a static image on a page move like a dancer.

Beyond that, I think I was touched at how these sketches felt to me like what it is to be alive. I've been meditating a lot on how much of life is improvisation, but that this creates a level of tension when you're on a spiritual path and you believe in God and believe in truth. On the one hand, there is a responsibility to be present to what is in front of you and to what the Holy Spirit is revealing through your life, but on the other hand there's truth and the dictates of conscience/ received ideas of morality/scripture, etc. I don't know that I can make this make sense, but seeing that image of a dancer's firm, fleshy shoulders emerging from squiggled lines and vague colors on a yellowed piece of paper seem to speak to that for me. There are always things that must remain true, firm, and concrete or I/we risk just kind of falling apart, but there is also always a lot of becoming... firm shoulders and squiggly outlines can co-exist, and still be breathtakingly beautiful.

Even in his finished works, Degas often seems to maintain this sense of vague edges to great effect. Standing and observing "Melancholy" (image at left), I was struck again at how much he chose not to define in the background, or even, really in the foreground when compared to the woman's face. Again, the greatest reality in this image is that of flesh, and his attentiveness to that makes it nearly impossible to look away from the woman's face. I thought to myself that "Melancholy" wasn't a strong enough word... this woman has been obliterated by something and is hanging on by a thread. So much communicated in this little space because he choose to fill in only what was important.

The quote at the beginning of this post is on the wall at the Phillips beside the sketch of the dancer tying her shoe. I scribbled it down in my little red moleskine, which I carry with me all the time and which contains a lot of scraps of things that I've tried to capture when they've dropped into my brain. It's also full of notes to myself... titles of albums, books, and paintings that I was trying to record because I knew I'd forget... as well as the blood pressure and pulse readings I get every time I give blood. This is how my life is... bits of some decent-ish writing, some singing here and there, occasional songwriting with friends... also books, papers, color, chaos, and quite a bit of blah.

The quote suggests a considerable amount of discipline on Degas' part, but in the context of a roomful of beautiful sketches nowhere near completion, it takes on a different tone, suggesting instead a man comfortable with the chaos of creativity, willing and able to be a beginner every day... someone who, perhaps, also had small notebooks filled with ideas and maybe also didn't clean his apartment as often as he should. I'm grateful to get a window into the kind of beauty that can emerge from showing up to participate in that creative chaos, day after day after day. It gives me hope.

1 comment:

Mike Rad said...

I wonder if another reading/layer of that last image couldn't be the virtually debilitating narrowing of focus that "melancholy" can bring with it. The background fades, to some extent your own body fades, until all you're left with is a smoldering "I" imagining itself in isolation from the rest of the world. We bring so much of ourselves into the moment of responding to art, text and speech.