- Perspectives on Degas ed. by Kathryn Brown
This volume of a dozen essays on Edgar Degas is a welcome addition to the extensive literature on this major — and still perplexing, even contested — artist. It follows two previous collections of papers on his work: Degas inédit (ed. by Henri Loyrette (Paris: Documentation française, 1989)) and Dealing with Degas: Representations of Women and the Politics of Vision (ed. by Richard Kendall and Griselda Pollock (New York: Universe, 1991)). These were published a generation ago, both following exhibitions dedicated to the artist, and were based on contributions to the linked conferences. By contrast, the present volume is free-standing, the essays drawn from the ambient world of scholarship. As such, it is a good gauge of how Degas scholarship stands today. The essays include some very interesting material. Patricia Failing scientifically explores the materials Degas used for his [End Page 614] sculpture, a diagrammatic cross-section of the Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans (1880-81, cast c. 1922) showing rope and paintbrushes as well as the more conventional wire and wax, thus revealing his extraordinary improvisation and lack of professionalism. Anna Gruetzner Robins writes revealingly on Walter Sickert's appreciation of Degas's experimental attitude to draughtsmanship. Marilyn Brown probes Degas's attitudes to race via the mixed-race circus performer Miss Lala. Both Anthea Callen, in a detailed and heavily gendered account of a Draner caricature from the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, and Kathryn Brown, in a close account of the roughly contemporaneous Famille Cardinal monotypes, deal with Degas's engagement with, or manipulation of, the tropes of the illustrated press. As a whole, this volume — inevitably and necessarily — shows the preoccupations of many current Degas scholars. A good deal of it seems insistently cross-referential, going over past literature and debates. Some of the essays have extensive layers that summarize published arguments, analysing and critiquing their positions. For example, Ruth Iskin presents an illuminating account of Mary Cassatt's significant role as a collector seeking to build up public collections in the United States, but this is prefaced by an extended assessment of the previous literature on the relationship between Degas and Cassatt. Other essays are frankly self-referential, going over the author's own previous writing. And there is the current tendency to introduce apparently alien theory to works of art. Thus, Marni Reva Kessler complicates a lively reading of the early portrait of the Princesse de Metternich by citing Gilles Deleuze on rhizomes, rather than simply seeing the rapidly improvised background pattern as suggesting wallpaper in front of which the figure is moving. Over-ritualized attention to the current preoccupations of academic practice can be engaging and certainly sets the contemporary art-historical tone. It does, however, draw us away from historical actuality. Several authors speculate on Degas's sexuality and attitude to women, ignoring the rather conclusive letter published by Loyrette three decades ago, in which the artist wrote to a friend in 1889 instructing him to go to a brothel Degas frequented to buy prophylactics to prepare them for a trip to Spain. This collection provides an enriching set of interpretative arguments, but perhaps the next volume of essays on Degas will bring us back more closely to the artist and his work.