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Friday, October 3, 2014

'Degas/Cassett,' the tape, and more at the National Gallery of Art

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Two impressionists, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) are linked artistically but not romantically no matter how much a romanticist might wish it otherwise, no matter what the wall label copy and catalog at the National Gallery of Art's show, Degas/Cassatt,
say to remind readers that their relationship was only professional; they were not "a couple" and, indeed, "drifted apart" in later years. Neither ever married, but they owned more of each other's works than they owned of any other contemporary artist's. 

Sadly, it all comes to an end this weekend (I want them all to remain forevermore, at least through my life, selfish beast that I am; can they go to the new Corcoran?) when Degas/Cassatt, the story of their professional relationship exits the world's stage.

Washington is the only venue for this magnificent display.(However and in a nearby gallery comes Degas's sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen who springs to life with some of her dancing buddies, the ones painted by Degas, which opens on the day of departure for Degas/Cassatt, October 5.  Cassatt thought Degas's future might be more fruitful in sculpture than in painting.)

A classy and free color brochure at Degas/Cassatt describes the painters' styles:  They painted the human body, clothed and unclothed, avoiding landscape portraiture. Degas rejected the label, "impressionist," preferring to be called a "realist" which also defines Cassatt's work. They both were highly educated and from well-to-do families.

For only $5, one may rent a tape to hear while you stroll (or elbow, depending upon the crowd's numbers which I believe will be pretty hefty this weekend) through the 70 or so works, guided by professionals who provide background for about 13 of the pieces in the show.

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, c. 1879-1884, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisition Fund

 The tape's talk time is about 35 minutes, but I listened for much longer than that, hearing some portions more than once, like the description of Degas's Mary Cassatt, c. 1879-1884. Can you blame her for wanting to get rid of this? What woman (or man) wants to look worse that she looks?

There she sits leaning in a chair, a woman in her mid to late 30s but looking much older, like she's going to fall out of the seat upon the floor. She is hunched with a grim expression, wearing black as if in mourning for...? What might have been?

The tape describes her as manly and gaunt, but I beg to differ. She seems pensive, a trifle irritated, bent in an unusual pose and sitting for what may have been long periods of time to satisfy the artist. She could have been doing something else: "What am I doing here? And why am I doing it?" No wonder she tried to unload the painting later without his knowledge. She called it "painful." Mary, you were right!

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, c. 1879, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

The most fascinating part of the show to me is the gallery where it hangs, the one devoted to Degas's images of Cassatt as she toured the Musee de Louvre. The many and varied sexy silhouettes he drew of her give a viewer pause. The works are each distinctly different, most, drawn of her back side while she strolled through the galleries. For a single woman of her age, there were not many public places acceptable for her to venture out unaccompanied, like culture finds women sheltered today in certain Middle Eastern countries.

Perhaps Degas wanted more from Mary Cassatt than collegial exchange.

Mary Cassatt, The Loge, c. 1878-1880, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

For The Loge, the tape says the young women at the theater seized an opportunity to mix with gentlemen and show off their beauty. They are dressed for the occasion and sit like dolls, almost expressionless but glum, displayed on a shelf for the men to ogle.   Since it was a husband's duty to provide the goods, no jewelry is worn except the artist, Cassatt, has placed on the neck of one,  a black choker.  What do you make of it? A symbol of a prison confinement that marriage can become? Like the black bars of prison which lock in an inmate and can strangle.  Contrast it with the pastels in the work.   About 150 years ago it is doubtful criticism of marriage as an institution was often heard, but now more Americans are unmarried than married. Mary Cassatt believed marriage would restrict her career.

On the other hand, could the choker symbolize the confinement the women have experienced growing up? Marriage will set them free?  Based upon their expressions, the future does not look so bright for these women. Maybe, the pickings are not to their liking.  Is this all there is? 

It seems likely that an academician has written about Cassatt's gender renderings.  Doesn't The Black Choker sound like the enticing name of a novel?  It reminds me of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer's painting which evolved into a book which became a movie which became a play.  I wish someone would query the experts and ask their explanations of the Black Choker. 

In the meantime, calling for a script.  I can't wait to read it. 

Edgar Degas, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, 1866, reworked 1880-1881 and c. 1897, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

When you enter the exhibition, at the far end on the wall facing you is a large painting, Degas's Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, which seems oddly out of place, juxtaposed between two Cassatt paintings of females reaching. (Reaching for what?) 

Cassatt wanted to buy The Fallen Jockey for her brother, a horse lover, but Degas refused to sell it, saying he needed to rework it, and over the next 30 years, on and off, he did. After his death, it was found in his studio.

Without the tape would I have paid much attention to the brown and muddy flooring of Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (which a thorough analysis revealed later Degas extensively reworked)? The weirdly spaced furniture stands on opposite side of the "shore" where a sleepy little girl sprawls in an illuminated chair lost in thought, perhaps contemplating her future, dogged (!) by what the painter knew lay ahead.  She appears about eight years old, but her image suggests someone older, experienced and wondering, what if?     
You see what art can do!  There is much more than what you see.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair is on the cover of the "must have" 160-paged catalogue available in the shops.

What: Degas/Cassatt

When: Now through Sunday, October 5, 2014 from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Main Floor, West Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.

Admission: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215

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