Her debut on the world’s stage could not have been more disastrous. The year was 1880, and at the fifth Impressionist exhibition stood a glass case intended to display the only sculpture Degas would ever exhibit. But on opening night, the case was empty, and it remained so for the duration of the show. Degas, for reasons unknown, was dissatisfied with the sculpture and refused to put it on view until the following year. When critics finally saw it, they ridiculed her in the cruelest terms at their disposal, comparing the figure to an “aborted fetus” and “a monkey.” History has been kinder to her than her critics. She is the famous Little Dancer Age Fourteen, and until January 10, 2016, she’s taking center stage at the Toledo Museum of Art.
This exhibition, Degas and the Dance, makes it emphatically clear that Degas was not a painter of dainty dancers and frilly dresses. His works depict dynamic action, physical exhaustion, and fragile, often exploited bodies pushed to their limit. He frequented rehearsals, giving him opportunity to capture the chaos, the work, and the tedium behind the scenes. Just look at the panoramic, frieze-like Dance Lesson, on loan from the Washington National Gallery. The dimly lit studio is the color of mud, and our attention immediately goes not to the group of dancers in the background, but to the seated girl in the foreground, her head in her hands. Does she have a headache? Is she crying or simply bored? She’s wearing a sweater; perhaps she’s done for the day and is waiting for a rendezvous with her “protector,” such were the men called who gave the girls money in exchange for sexual favors. One thing is certain, there are no prima-donnas in this studio.
Most who come to this show are likely here to see the 38-inch tall, fourteen-year-old Marie van Goethem, who immediately greets viewers upon entrance, perpetually frozen in fourth position, eyes closed, head high. The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is the undisputed leading lady of the exhibition. In life, her sister achieved stardom; Marie never did, except in art. The original wax sculpture was the only work Degas ever intended to be exhibited. Daringly, he used real human hair and actual fabric, anticipating the multi-media techniques that wouldn’t be fully explored until the 1950s. Its display behind glass evoked specimens preserved in formaldehyde. But behind the gilded scenes of the opulent Paris Opera, young ballerinas faced long hours, little pay, and few prospects. Perhaps this was, in fact, the perfect way to display the young ballerina. Twenty-nine casts of the Little Dancer were made posthumously; this one comes to Toledo on loan from The Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts.
Accompanying Marie von Goethem is a modest dance troupe of five other sculptural studies of ballerinas in various poses. Like the Little Dancer, four are also on loan from The Clark; the fifth, a preparatory study for the Little Dancer, is from the TMA’s permanent collection. The dancers have the immediacy of sketches in the round, which is precisely what they are. For Degas, working in three dimensions was simply an exercise to better understand how to solve problems when painting or drawing. With the lone exception of the wax version of the Little Dancer, Degas never intended his sculptures to ever be seen.
The sculptures occupy center stage, but the exhibition also features a small but important spread of pastels, drawings, and paintings on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Phillips Collection, also in Washington.
Degas’ characteristically unconventional compositions are like Polaroid snapshots, convincingly thrusting us into the acrid, stuffy, and claustrophobic world of the ballet studio. One etching on loan from the Washington NGA, On Stage I, crops out all but a fraction of the heads of the musicians in the orchestra pit. The much more refined Dance Class, an oil painting from the Orsay, offers us a wonderfully chaotic dance lesson in which we see a girl seated on a piano (no doubt, causing it to go out of tune) and scratching an itch, while a small terrier wanders about. Degas frequented rehearsals, calculatedly offering us a thoroughly believable and un-idyllic glimpse of the backstage lives of the dancers, where there was lots of work but no applause.
Inventively, the TMA converted a generous portion of the exhibition space into a functioning ballet studio, replete with a ballet barre. Intrepid visitors are invited to use it, and perhaps even practice alongside the Toledo Area Ballet, which will be rehearsing there frequently for the duration of the exhibit. While dancers practice, visitors are also encouraged to sketch them, mimicking the modus operandi of the great Impressionist himself. Highlights are hung on display; it’s a rare opportunity for talented visitors to exhibit art alongside Degas.
The modest and affordable exhibition catalog contains several prefatory essays, including one by the TMA’s research intern who was herself formerly part of the Toledo Ballet. In addition to putting these works in context, the catalogue also explains the connection between the TMA and the Toledo Ballet, currently celebrating 75 years of annual performances of the Nutcracker Suite. An adjunct gallery in the exhibition celebrates the company with multimedia highlights, interviews, articles, and artifacts from previous performances.
Degas & the Dance invites us to look again at Degas’ dancers, and see behind the glamour of the Paris Opera. Life for these girls was overwhelmingly difficult, and were it not for Degas, none of us would know about Marie van Goethem. The impoverished dancer’s existence was of such insignificance to others that nobody knows what ever happened to her, though it’s speculated that she died in her early twenties. The last we know for sure is that she was dismissed from her ballet company for missing too many rehearsals. But Degas immortalized her, and she continues to work her gentle magic on visitors to the TMA. And, indeed, so does Degas, who turned the young Marie into one of the most iconic images of 20th century art. This show just might change the way you view Degas, the artist whose name became synonymous with the dance.