Master of the moment
Degas and the Italians in Paris ****
Society of Scottish Artists ***
Visual arts in Scotland ***
ROYAL SCOTTISH ACADEMY, EDINBURGH
Degas’s father called himself de Gas, not Degas. In France that "de" was posh. It was the artist who changed it. His background set Degas apart from the other Impressionists, except perhaps Manet, but it was not only because it was posh. It was also cosmopolitan. His mother had connections with New Orleans and his father was half-Italian, indeed was brought up in Naples. The painter had close family in Italy and spoke the language fluently. He travelled there when he was a young man and spent time studying the Italian Old Masters. In the RSA’s new exhibition, Degas and the Italians in Paris, the most striking early works are portraits of his Italian family, done when he was there.
But the Italians in the exhibition are not his family, nor are they the Italian Old Masters. They are contemporary Italian artists. Back in Paris, Degas kept up his Italian connection and a group of Italian artists gathered around him, feeding off him artistically, even copying him directly. Work by four of them, Federico Zandomeneghi, Giovanni Boldini, Giuseppe de Nittis and Medardo Rosso, is brought together here with work by Degas himself. Rosso was a sculptor and is the most interesting of them, but on the whole, it must be said, they are not very exciting.
Degas’s portrait of the Italian critic Diego Martelli, one of the finest Impressionist pictures in the National Gallery’s collection, which reflects this connection, is perhaps the principal reason for the exhibition coming here from Italy where it originated. The painting is the centrepiece of the exhibition, but it stands on its own.
The connection of Degas with these Italians is no doubt a hotter topic in Italy than it is here. Indeed, it is really just a footnote to the Degas story. So this is not a blockbuster. It is not The Impressionists Part 2 with Monet as Part 1. It is quite different in scale and character from the Monet. It is not even in the same galleries of the RSA. The main galleries upstairs are shared by the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) and Visual Arts Scotland, of which more later. Degas and the Italians in Paris is in the new downstairs galleries. These are small, rather intimate spaces and this is an intimate kind of show.
There are about 50 works by Degas. Around 20 are paintings of any size or large-scale pastels. The rest are prints, drawings, monotypes and small sculptures. Rather private works in fact, and Degas did not make sculpture to exhibit. But this sense of intimacy, of privacy even, gives the show a special quality. You can get close to Degas. And if the Italians are mostly a red herring, they do at least provide a counterpoint and help us see just how good he is and why. In the exhibition, for instance, Degas’s wonderful painting of a woman standing in the Louvre, looking at pictures, is hung beside a painting by Boldini of much the same subject. There is no comparison. The Boldini looks flashy. The Degas is a masterpiece of economical observation. By our closeness to the woman in the picture and, though her face is partly hidden, by the way she is defined in black against the vaguely described paintings beyond her, we feel we share her absorption.
It is this interest in people, in mood, and his command of expression that make Degas stand out from his fellow Impressionists. His love of music and opera also sets him apart. Perhaps it was part of his Italian inheritance. Certainly among the outstanding works here are several of people singing, or making music. Beside them even a musical picture such as Manet’s Young Guitarist looks stagey. Especially fine is Degas’s Song Rehearsal, two women performing a duet, singing at each other with theatrical vigour.
It is his observation of gesture, expression and social space that gives the picture such life. And all the time he uses drawing to explore this. This is an approach that is quite different from the other Impressionists and it was drawing that he learnt from the Italian Old Masters. It is just a coincidence, but a striking one, that his grandfather’s Palazzo in Naples had a ceiling painted by Francesco Solimena, the artist who taught Allan Ramsay so much about drawing.
This is where the idea of Degas and Italians does become interesting. It was not that he imitated what the Old Masters did, though he copied their works. Rather he studied the principle and developed drawing into an instrument of his own modern vision, exploring how we really see, breaking down stereotypes. This is most striking in his later pictures of ballet dancers and especially his pastels of women bathing, both of which types were imitated by his Italian friends. The female nude was the epitome of academic drawing. We see it in Zandomeneghi’s nudes, shown alongside his. It is as though the Italian was using a set of cut-out shapes, inherited from academic art, through which we were compelled to see the beauty of the world. Then Degas tore them up to show it to us afresh.
In his lifetime, Degas did exhibit in these galleries, or at least upstairs. He was an Honorary RSA and showed in the annual exhibition on three occasions. By then he was a bit of an Old Master himself, however, and it has been the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) which has habitually brought younger progressive artists from abroad. But the SSA, the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) and Visual Arts Scotland (VAS) all faced losing their annual exhibition in the RSA galleries after the galleries were refurbished and the rent was pushed up in consequence to a point that seemed beyond reach. Money has now been raised, however, and an agreement has been thrashed out that means that all three exhibitions are secure for the next few years at least.
One outcome of the uncertainty has been that this year, showing for the first time in the new galleries, in a novel arrangement, the SSA and VAS are sharing them. By doing this they get twice as long, six weeks together instead of three weeks each, but this is not an amalgamation. They have split the space down the middle and have each produced a separate catalogue. That might seem an extravagance. However different they may feel from each other, there is not much to distinguish them to the casual visitor. It all looks like one big exhibition. When you look more closely, however, you do realise that there is still jewellery and some other applied art in the Visual Arts Scotland half, the left side as you go in. But there are good works on both sides. VAS greets you with an enormous musical machine by Eduard Bersudsky. Emily Taylor’s glass Chinese boxes, one inside the other and inscribed with a text, make a beautiful object, so do her porcelain leaves of a book. One of the loveliest things in either show is Walter Awlson’s exquisite porcelain bust of a young girl, Lauren, also in VAS. In the SSA, Jenny Smith’s grey and white painting, Raked Gravel, has a purity and stillness to match its subject, a Zen raked gravel garden. There is also a lovely collage by Liz Murray called Traveller’s Quilt. In the same room Elizabeth Blackadder has a wall to herself. There is also a very fine work by Phil Reeves. These latter are senior artists. But so is Jake Harvey now and he is showing with VAS. His contribution is a large box of potatoes and a landscape of a ploughed field, a rustic version of Anya Gallacio’s Turner Prize rotting apples perhaps? But the potatoes seem to come from the Duke of Sutherland’s estate at Mertoun. Is that also an obscure comment on the Sutherland pictures in the National Gallery? I do hope not.
• Degas and the Italians in Paris runs until 29 February. The other shows run until 21 January
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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