Edger Degas’s Treatment of the Taboo Subject of the Contemporary Nude

Edger Degas is known by many as one of the Impressionists of artistic fame, while also being one of the more controversial members. He was a misogynist, he had awful things to say about Jews and he was generally a mean spirited person with an up-tight attitude. However, despite his spiteful character he was a man of great artistic innovation.

I’d like to share some incites about his work, specifically his pastel pieces around the female nude. As you may well understand, nude woman in art had proceeded artists such as Degas for generations, although they were constricted to classical imagery. Edouard Manet for instance, a major influence on many Impressionists, had challenged the hypocritical nature of this Classical subject with his piece Olympia as it presented a far more confrontational nude woman in a contemporary setting. Where Classical nudes presented women as idealized forms in highly finished paintings, Manet presented a prostitute with spontaneous strokes. Unfortunately for him, many critics claimed the work “valuer” and “amateur”, criticism which reoccurred similarly in the later first Impressionist’s exhibition.

Olympia by Edouard Manet, 1863

Manet wanted to show women in a more realistic light, as the world was a quickly changing place and the classical motif was an aging relic of the past. So it may not surprise you to find that Degas, a great innovator, adopted this notion to move away from the old traditions, however it may surprise you to find that he also presented the female nude less idealistically and more realistically. I’m again referring to the pastel nudes as I mentioned earlier, images of woman  bathing, washing, drying themselves and so on. These images were first exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, while the artist was at the height of his fame, resulting in critics considering the work more. While this did lead to the praise of reflecting colors and more spontaneous techniques, as the Impressionists usually achieved, the subject matter itself was as much a taboo as it was for Manet in 1865 with Olympia. Like Manet’s, Degas’s nudes were received with shock, as nudes were still primarily a Classical subject, although the manner in which Degas presented them was entirely different to Manet’s. His nude figures were far less confrontational and more disconnected, even unknowing of the viewer’s glance, as if caught unaware. As you can imagine this somewhat perverse placement of the viewer generated some negativity, but considering that a lot of Classical images of reclining women was just as erotic, if not more welcoming, this placement seems to be mostly overlooked. What I feel needs highlighting is the underlying ideas in the pieces, ideas unrelated to technique, the essence of human kind in naturalistic form that evades idealization.

Woman in the Bath by Edger Degas, 1886

Woman Combing Her Hair by Edger Degas, 1887-90

The imperfect postures of the women as they go about their daily activity, unknowing that they are on show. Ordinary women, without slim bodies and clear skin expectant of Pagan goddesses. Women with layers of pink flesh, made apparent through bending and stretching, that describes them unsympathetically. Some critics said these details were “cruel” and “degrading” (as some of these features were saved for the mockery of prostitutes due to ‘idleness’), maybe Degas was merely being misogynistic again, but its the activities that the women take part in that tackle this notion. The self cleansing portrayed may very well by an allegory of the cleansing of the taboo of unidealized beauty in contemporary women.

Woman in Bath by Edger Degas, 1883

This work has clear influences to later artists; such Egon Schiele’s highly emotive contorted figures, unidealized human bodies that strike with fixations of lust and anguish, and Lucien Freud’s painfully truthful painting of those close to him, unrelenting with fact over fiction.

Seated Woman with Bent Knee by Egon Schiele, 1917

Untitled by Lucian Freud, 1972

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