Visual Arts

Dubious Degas

The ads running in Phoenix's local media couldn't be more straightforward, and seemingly guileless. Beneath a photo of one of the art world's most popular icons, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, is the title of the exhibition now on display until May 30 at the Phoenix Art Museum, "Degas in Bronze." The brief description makes no bones about what visitors will get when they pony up their $12 admission fee:

"Known primarily as a painter, Edgar Degas was also a great sculptor. See all 73 of Degas' bronzes in this special exhibition from the Museu de Arte de Säo Paulo, Brazil."

Ah, Degas, one of the immortal Impressionists, known collectively as the art world's gold standard, a sure draw these days for any museum or gallery looking to move warm bodies past the turnstiles. And here we have, according to this ad, "all 73" of the master's bronzes. Why, anyone with even the most cursory interest in great art would not dream of missing this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

It's a fine Sunday afternoon, but just a little too hot, and thus perfect for a couple of hours indoors with the irascible Frenchman who died in 1917 at the age of 83 -- and who was and is still known for his arresting images of ballerinas, women bathing, racehorses, absinthe-drinkers, and brothels. You arrive, hand over a dozen simoleons, and proceed to the exhibit where a video presentation introduces you to what you're about to see. Footage of living, breathing ballerinas melts into bronze figurines. A voice-over explains that "Degas' work in sculpture intensified as he aged," and that "his sculptures capture the control and strength of the dancer."

But what is not explained in this video, or in the ads running in the local media, and what one may not catch unless one has paid close attention to specific passages of wall text in the exhibition itself, is that Degas never touched, approved or saw these bronzes. Indeed, there was no way that he could have, because they were commissioned by his heirs after his death from the scores of wax and mixed-media sculptures left in his studio. Visitors had seen them, but save for Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, which was displayed in its original wax form in April 1881 as part of the Sixth Impressionist exposition in Paris, none had been exhibited. And in the case of Little Dancer, audiences were so shocked by its realism that Degas never again displayed it publicly.

In fact, Degas seemed mostly doubtful about these figures he had created of wax, cork, wood and other detritus, and in an account reprinted in the exhibition's $85 catalogue, he explained that his wax figures were meant mainly as studies for himself. It's an account borne out in part by the rough, unfinished nature of much of what's on display at PAM, albeit several steps removed from Degas' hands.

"They are exercises to get me going," he told an acquaintance, in a passage that ironically undercuts PAM's show. "Documentary, preparatory motions, nothing more. None of this is intended for sale. . . . My sculptures will never have the feel of being finished, which is the ultimate end in a sculptor's workmanship, and after all, since no one will ever see these rough sketches, nobody will dare to talk about them, not even you. From this day forward until my death, this will all be destroyed by itself and this will be best for my reputation."

Degas did not have his wax sculptures cast in bronze, nor did he leave instructions that this be done. At one point, he did have plaster casts made of three sculptures, but he never proceeded beyond this stage, though he could have done so at any time as the casts were made many years before his death. If we take Degas at his word, and there seems to be no reason not to, it's clear he did not want those wax figurines, most of which now sit on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to survive him. This is significantly different from other artists who have authorized posthumous editions of their artwork.

So what the hell are these 73 statuettes, how come they have Degas' signature on them, and how high should we hang the brain trust at the Phoenix Art Museum for billing the show as "Degas' bronzes" when at best they should be billed as "posthumous bronze reproductions of wax studies and figurines that the artist did not want preserved"?

Depending on whom you ask, there may be extant anywhere from around 1,300 to more than 1,600 posthumously made bronzes of the original Degas waxes. When Degas keeled over, his heirs swooped down in a frenzy of greed and decided to have 73 of the waxes cast in bronze by the Hebrard Foundry in Paris, 72 plus the little dancer. (A 74th was also cast sometime in the 1950s.) Initially, 22 casts of each of these figures were to be made. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, owns a complete master modele set of the bronzes used to make the other bronzes. Through an ingenious variation of the so-called lost wax method, the original wax/mixed-media sculptures were preserved, as normally they would be destroyed by the heat of the process.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons