This weekend my wife and I went down to Canberra to do some cycling, see the Degas exhibition and a ballooning festival. Unfortunately the planned ballooning festival didn’t really happen because on Saturday morning there was too much fog to take off and on Sunday morning the wind was blowing towards the airport which would have taken the balloons in to a no-fly zone. Fortunately the weather was fine and since Canberra is such a good place to go cycling because of all the cycle paths that can be found there, we still had a good time. Canberra is built around a man-made lake called Lake Burley Griffin which is ringed with a 34 km (just over 21 miles) cycle path. Although the cycle path is pretty easy we only cycled about 25 km because we both aren’t used to sitting on bicycle seats all that long and our butts started to hurt.
On the way around the lake we passed the Australian National Museum which is housed in a spectacular building designed by the Australian architect Howard Raggatt. The picture below shows the enormous entrance.
After we finished with the cycling for the day we went to the National Gallery of Australia to see the Degas exhibition.
Going on a Saturday was a huge mistake because it was so crowded. I absolutely hate being forced into a line to trudge along like a sheep heading into an abattoir looking at the paintings at other people’s pace. Both my wife and I were very disappointed with Degas and to be honest I can’t really see what all the fuss is about. Sure, he was a good draughtsman and he could capture the light pretty well but I got really sick and tired of the voyeuristic nature of his images.
Back when I studied photography it was explained to us that one of the debts that modern painting owed to photography was that it freed up painting to be more expressive rather than purely documentary. It’s pretty obvious when you look at Degas’s work that he was not only influenced by the way how the photographic framing quite often cuts through subject matter off to the sides of the shot, but also by Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”. Sure enough, a lot of Degas’s work has a snapshot like quality that gives it a certain sense of spontaneity at first glance, but I found the more that I looked at his work, the more I had the niggling feeling there was nothing really spontaneous about Degas’s work at all. When you come to think of it, how could there be any real spontaneity? The act of painting is not an instant thing like pushing a button on a camera.
The more I saw of Degas’s work, the more I began to feel that it was produced by a voyeuristic and predatory mind. What has been described as the “snapshot like” quality of his compositions, because of the way how there are often people or objects in the foreground, off to the sides of the pictures, that have been bisected by the frame (just like in many snaps), actually look as though they are being peered around, by the viewer, at the main subject.
I began to feel uneasy as I looked at the paintings. It seemed to me that Degas stood behind things and people so he could perv on the subject without being observed. I can sort of understand how observing people is a bit like observing animals and that you will get to see more natural behaviour if your subject is unaware of you watching them. On the other hand, it isn’t for no reason, that directors of horror movies who want the audience to feel as though a character is being stalked, have the camera move behind cover like bushes, so that the audience feels as though they are seeing the prey through the eyes of the predator (by the way, this camera angle is known as, “point of view” and it’s frequently abbreviated to POV).
The reason why I have trouble with Degas’s work and his “point of view”, is that one of the dominant and recurring themes that he (and so many other brothel visiting impressionists) indulged in was that of the nude woman from behind.
It was the same old trope, of the woman either washing or drying herself off. From the angle of many of the drawings I would say that Degas was sitting behind the women almost looking up at their bent forms and in particular their backsides. Bum after bum after bare bum in pointless and quite often very contrived poses. It’s not even the fact that the images were of nudes. What bugged me was the fact that these women that Degas was supposedly so innocently representing were in fact sex workers in brothels who were catering to an old perv’s voyeuristic fantasy. It all seemed like some tacky bourgeois exploitation of the poor. I felt that just about the whole show was nothing more than one big grubby power trip.
I am just so over that whole absinthe drinking; brothel creeping; French impressionistic toss.
Van Gogh was far more talented, interesting, and way more honest. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of more of his work on my trip to Europe later on this year.