Picasso Looks at Degas is full of allusions and quotations: a repeated subject here, a suggested reference there. Degas’s and Picasso’s laundresses labor at their ironing side-by-side, while one of the Desmoiselles d’Avignon plants herself in a pose too similar to that of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen to be ignored.
These sorts of visual variations lead the exhibition visitor along a path that explores so much more than a chronological amble through the two artists’ careers. More than that, the show offers a real expedition into the artists’–especially Picasso’s–working methods and how they make their works work on the viewer… but perhaps in expected ways.
As an art historian, I feel like I approach most pictures (in this show and others) with this kind of… well, intellectual baggage, if you will. I try to remember what I’ve read or seen in my studies in order to make connections and try to understand each picture as best I can. But sometimes, I have to remind myself to drop the bags just look, and that’s what I’ve really enjoyed doing in Picasso Looks at Degas. By freeing myself to let my mind play with what I see, by not getting too bogged down with what I think I know, I let the show take on a much more personal feel. Let me offer a couple of examples.
Degas’s Combing the Hair (La Coiffure) from the National Gallery, London, has been one of my favorite paintings by the artist since the semester I spent studying abroad in London during college. A class I was taking on “Art and Everyday Life” met at the National Gallery to discuss some of our most recent readings on Realism and Impressionism in front of the paintings themselves–always an important exercise! I remember that Combing the Hair hung in a gallery that felt much larger than the Clark’s, in close proximity to another Degas hair-combing picture, Beach Scene of 1869-70 and the large Gustave Caillebotte Man at his Bath of 1884.
Do I remember exactly what we discussed that day? No. Do I remember that the conversation was important for my appreciation of the works I saw? Yes. And this beautiful picture of hair combing also makes me think of the punky hairdo of the professor of that same “Art and Everyday Life” course, Dr. Frances Stracey, whose intellectual curiosity and energy were contagious. Sadly, I recently learned that Dr. Stracey passed away from cancer last year, at a very young age. I now think of this professor, who inspired me to study art history at the graduate level, every time I look at this picture. It feels miraculous that it is here at the Clark for the summer.
Another example. My 18-year-old brother recently paid a visit to the Clark, and I loved walking through the exhibition with him. When I asked him what his favorite works were, he guided me to the final gallery of the show, where the brothel scenes are displayed. I started to roll my eyes and formulate a snarky remark about nude women, but he pointed to the meek figure of Degas that appears in each of Picasso’s etchings. My brother has a very expressive face, and he replicated Degas’s looks of shock and embarrassment at being in the brothels to a tee.
Perhaps my brother was projecting his own teenage embarrassment of having to look at naked women in public onto Picasso’s image of Degas. But I also like to think of his engagement with these pictures in terms used by the exhibition curators: in their text on the exhibition microsite, they describe Degas as Picasso’s “alter ego” in many of the late pictures, as a projection of some part of Picasso’s self into these charged works. My brother happens to be a connoisseur of comic books and graphic novels, in which superheroes are the alter egos of all-too-human protagonists (think Superman and Clark Kent, Spider-Man and Peter Parker). Hmm… Super Degas? Now, when I enter this final gallery, these connections between my brother, Degas, and black-and-white graphic art call to mind Charles Burns’s dark comics series Black Hole (published in full by Pantheon in 2008), which offers its own, bizarre take on teen angst. (Any of you out there who have read it know what I mean.)
But enough about me. What about you? With these musings and free associations in mind, perhaps we can allow that the allusions and quotations in Picasso Looks at Degas are not confined to the interplay between the pictures hanging on the walls. We can also think about the interplay between the pictures and ourselves, between the pictures and our own particular memories and personal histories. What sorts of thoughts and feelings come to mind on your visits to Picasso Looks at Degas? What poems, songs, or memories are called up by the works on view? I hope you’ll post your comments and share.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the show!
Sarah Hammond, Curatorial Assistant
* See some examples of Picasso’s engagement with other artists besides Degas in this New York Times slideshow of the 2008 exhibition Picasso and the Masters. http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/10/27/arts/20081027_PICASSO_SLIDESHOW_index.html