Degas at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Exhibition Review

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge houses the most extensive collection of works by Edgar Degas in Britain. It is therefore natural that on the centenary of the artist's death such a remarkable institution puts on show his precious collection.

Until 14 January 2018 visitors can admire a brilliant exhibition dedicated to the artist's long and prolific career. Most of the works come from the collection of the museum but a good 50 works are on loan from both private and public collections, some of them on view for the very first time. After Cambridge, the exhibition will travel to Denver, USA, during Spring 2018.

The collection of works is one of the most representative of the artist's oeuvre including sculptures, oil paintings, pastels, drawings and monotypes, displayed in well-curated spacious rooms. The exhibition shows the extraordinary range of subjects that Degas treated, from classical to portraiture and landscape, as well as the large variety of techniques that he adopted. Walking from room to room one remains fascinated by the number and the quality of works gathered.

The show is divided into three main sections: the first room gathers early works by Degas from the 1850s and 1860s as well as a few works by those artists that influenced him throughout his academic training. Here, the visitor finds Degas' beautiful sketches of antique Greek sculptures and copies of Renaissance Masters. This room is testament to the artist's passion and devotion to the great artists of the past such as Delacroix, Ingres, Corot and Donatello. Unlike his more spontaneous fellow Impressionist artists, Degas thought that art was the product of 'reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament – temperament is the word – I know nothing' (Degas quoted in R. Kendall, Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings, London, 1987, p. 311).

In the last section of room 1 are displayed artworks depicting interiors of cafés and women chatting. Here, Degas captures fleeting intimate moments between friends gossiping, sharing opinions or simply silently sitting down together at a café bar. Apart from the modernity of the subject, what is most interesting is the way the artist captures the instant and depicts it. In such works the scenes are imbued with a sense of mystery: the subject of the conversation and the mood set by it is unclear, and the emotions of the people portrayed veiled and impenetrable. This effect is also due to the painting technique known as 'underpainting' that Degas often adopted; which consisted of leaving details of women's costume, expression or gestures deliberately incomplete letting the spectator wonder what the relationship between the people portrayed is and what they are thinking or talking about. As Degas once stated, people chatting was one of his most inspiring subjects.

The second room is dedicated to the artist's favorite subject and that for which he is best known: the ballet dancer, captured here through beautiful pastels and bronzes. It is worth noting that the Fitzwilliam Museum owns the only original sculptures by the artist in Britain. Degas produced an vast number of works on this subject from the 1870s onwards. He believed that '[dance] is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks' (Degas quoted in A. Vollard, Degas (1834–1917), Paris, 1924, pp. 109-110). Degas worked up numerous versions of poses showing his obsession, or rather fascination, with the young ballerinas: 'it is essential to do the same subject over again ten times, hundreds of times. Nothing in art must be seem to be chance, not even movement' (Degas quoted in E. J. Bullard, Mary Cassatt Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, pp. 15-16).

Room 3 displays both early works from the 1850s and 1860s as well as late works from the 1880s and 1890s, devoted to the subject of classical portraits and nudes showing how this subject has played an important role throughout the artist's life. To conclude, the curator Jane Munro interestingly dedicates the last section to works by 20th and 21st century artists who have looked to Degas for inspiration, learning and adopting from him. Among them: Pablo Picasso (who owned 9 Degas monotypes of brothel scenes), Francis Bacon, Howard Hodgkin (who considered Degas one of his heroes) and Frank Auerbach, to name but a few. This last room perfectly ends the exhibition showing how the artist's legacy continued and influenced the artists after him.


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