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“I would have been in mortal misery all my life for fear my wife might say, ‘That’s a pretty little thing,’ after I had finished a picture.”

Edgar Degas was a misanthrope, a fiercely independent innovator and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lifelong bachelor. Although working and exhibiting alongside the Impressionists, he scowled at their plein air paintings.

Ever the contrarian, among the 200 pieces collected from museums and galleries as far flung as Sao Paolo and Hiroshima, you might not expect to discover “Degas the landscape artist”, says NGV curator Ted Gott. “Especially given his constant insistence that he was a Realist, not an Impressionist, for whom “nature is the enemy”.

His creative output continued over half a century – failing eyesight notwithstanding.

There’s a sense of a relentless search for new angles, forms and methods – including, says Gott, “jumping up and down on his pastels to create dense ground layers” and “scorching the surface” of some of his works.

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Edgar Degas, Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier, 1872 oil on canvas, 32.7 x 46.3 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 1977) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Though born into a well-heeled family and remembered foremost as a chronicler of ballet and horse racing, Degas was not deterred by criticism and scandal to complete “monotype studies of sex workers in a Parisian brothel” in the late 1870s.

The studies remain surprising for “both the frankness and mundanity” with which Degas approached the risqué subject. “In his eyes”, says Gott, “these were studies of working women, and it is their boredom and exhaustion in their downtimes between clients that he documents.”

Degas’s impression on modern and contemporary art endures largely because of “his abandonment, at a radically early stage (beginning of the 1860s) of accepted notions of ‘finish’ in his paintings”, says Gott. Meanwhile, his subject matter of “human behaviour, human psychology and emotion” remains as timely as ever.
Degas: A New Vision
NGV International
24 June – 18 September

Varia Karipoff