Picasso looks at Degas

Friday June 11, 2010


When Pablo Picasso moved to Paris from Spain in 1904, he crossed paths on occasion with the French Impressionist Edgar Degas.

It was unavoidable. The two had studios in the same neighborhood, shared the same models and even had the same dealer for a time.

Being of different generations, classes and ethnic backgrounds, however, and given the social formalities of the era, it is unlikely the young, then-unknown Spaniard ever actually walked up and introduced himself to renowned elderly Frenchman. It just wasn't done in those days.

Yet Degas figured on and off in Picasso's art for much of the 20th century, according to new research by Elizabeth Cowling and Richard Kendall, curators of "Picasso Looks at Degas" opening this weekend at the Clark Art Institute.

How he did is answered subtly, but convincingly in the more than 100 artworks brought together for the exhibition. Why he did is open to question.

That is one thing that Cowling, a Picasso scholar, and Kendall, an expert on Impressionism, speculated about in a wide-ranging interview about the exhibition at the Clark last week.

"It tells us," Kendall said of the research, "'there are still things to discover about Picasso. It underlines his protean creativity: Extraordinary man, extraordinarily long career, incredibly productive, incredibly talented man. But there are still things we don't know about him.

"Likewise," he went on, "it's made me look at Degas differently. If you look at Degas through Picasso's eyes you see things you didn't see before."

Picasso never acknowledged Degas' influence in so many words, the two admitted, but visual evidence of it emerges in many ways.

Picasso took up some of the same subjects Degas did - particularly ballet dancers and women bathing. He worked in multiple media as Degas did. He even put caricatures of Degas into a series of drawings inspired by a set of Degas' prints he'd purchased in the 1950s.

Viewers will see in the show, for example, similar- sized images by both artists of women washing and combing their long hair, or taking balletic poses, or displaying themselves at whorehouses - subjects narrow enough in art practice to be arguably more than coincidental. Particularly striking are the compositional similarities between the Clark's 1898 Degas' bronze sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" and Picasso's "Standing Nude" oil painting of 1907 from the Museo de Novecento in Milan.

The same can be said of the distracted- looking couples at tables in Degas' famous 1875 oil "In a Cafe (L'Absinthe)" on loan from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris and Picasso's " Portrait of Sebastia Junyer/Vidal" of 1903, lent by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Although Picasso left no record of seeing these works by Degas, Cowling and Kendall document in the 354-page catalog the occasions he might have come upon them at auctions or exhibitions. Degas died in 1917, when Picasso was 36. Picasso died in 1973 at age 92.

Degas was not the only "old master" from whom Picasso borrowed ideas to remake as his own, the curators said. Velasquez, Ingres and Cezanne were others he took up, used and discarded over his long life. But the quality and scope of the dialogue he had with Degas was different, they argued. "We believe Picasso sensed an affinity with Degas in the way some artists do with other artists," said Kendall, a Clark curator- at- large, who met Cowling in London a decade ago and floated the idea for this exhibition.

"They both loved drawing," he said. "Drawing was central to their art. They both were artists of essentially the human figure. They were fascinated by the old masters. There's three major attitudes they had in common."

" Neither was satisfied with [ just] being a painter/ draftsman," said Cowling, a retired professor of art history at Edinburgh University. Both men took up sculpture with little training and produced work that was "extremely innovative," she said. Both also turned to printmaking, a highly technical medium, and used it masterfully.

Picasso showed the same obsessive attention to a single subject that Degas did, she said, churning out multiple variations of, for example, the nude in her bath or combing her hair.

Yet his work was never a "clone" of what Degas did, she explained. Instead, Picasso reacted creatively and made whatever he saw in Degas into his own unique image. "That's what creative minds do," she said.

"The sense of a shared obsession is really quite spooky," Kendall said. "It's strange and wonderful and we don't know the answer. It's sexual, it's psychological, historical, personal."

In personality, the two artists could not have been more different.

"Degas was very formal and correct in his [public] behavior," said Kendall, although in private he was said to be "great fun. He loved children; he loved young people. He could be very tender."

Never married, he appeared to be far more repressed in his sexual life than was Picasso, who was outgoing, married three times and had multiple mistresses.

"He also had this devastating wit," said Cowling, not unlike that of Picasso's own father Jose, an art teacher who was close in age to Degas.

Whether Picasso saw similarities between Degas and his father is unknown. He never wrote his autobiography and seldom answered letters beyond business matters, Cowling said.

"The number of [written] references that come down to us is tiny," she complained.

"The art is his testimony," Kendall concluded. "The art is our best evidence. The art tells us again and again that he's coming back to Degas."

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496-6211 cbonenti@berkshireeagle.com

On exhibit

What: "Picasso Looks at Degas," curated by Elizabeth Cowling and Richard Kendall.

Where: The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.

When: Sunday through Sept. 12.

Admission: Adults, $15; children and students with ID, free.

Catalog is available in English, Spanish, and Catalan. Price is $65 in hardcover; $45, softcover.

Information: (413) 458-9545 or www.clarkart.edu.


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