Degas to Picasso

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Degas to Picasso, Painters, Sculptors, and the Camera covers the period from 1885 to 1915 and contains 364 paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and photographs. The exhibition was organized by Dorothy Kosinski, the Dallas Museum of Art’s Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art.

The movement of modern art away from mid-19th century Salon Art can be traced to several cultural influences, including industrialization and new familiarization with Japanese prints as well as African and Polynesian tribal art. There was a shift in subject matter away from classical subjects and towards ordinary daily life. Although it is often acknowledged that photography had an impact, particularly on the Impressionist movement, this exhibition provides a revisionist perspective on how deeply indebted modern art is to the camera.

Many of the painters and sculptors shown here did not acknowledge their use of photography or its inspirational role in their work. In fact, artists at the turn of the century often dismissed photography as merely a mechanical tool. Part of what makes this exhibition an eye- and mind-opening experience is the shift from an assumption that art springs full-blown from the mind of the artist; the exhibit explores the processes by which these artists created some of their masterpieces.

Ms. Kosinski has gathered works from 14 very diverse artists representing different avant-garde movements of the time. The exhibit is laid out in chapters with a section devoted to each artist. In addition to works by the artists and photographic pieces from their private collections, there are prints by professional photographers, notably Edward Steichen and Eadweard Muybridge.

It is obvious that photographs were almost immediately used as source materials, especially studies of figures in motion. The room devoted to Degas demonstrates that photographs provided him with information that was previously unavailable. Degas is for the first time able to observe and then sculpt a horse in full gallop because photographs taken in stop motion have revealed the animal’s actual movements. For those familiar with other work of Degas, the photographs of horse and rider walking head on towards the camera are just as impressive. They provide a view of what may have inspired the flattened perspective evident in many of his equestrian paintings.

The Degas room is also notable for the painting, Blue Dancers, 1893, on loan from the Musee d’Orsay. Displayed nearby are many photographs of dancers from the corps de ballet, studies of them in various poses and obvious inspiration for his ballet paintings.

Gustave Moreau used the camera to make detailed studies of the human figure that he later translated directly to canvas. A very good example on display is his painting, The Argonauts from 1885. The museum displays, on either side of this work, photographic studies of each figure that Moreau later assembled into a finished painting. His assistant Henri Rupp took most of the actual photographs, and their very existence has only recently come to light. Perhaps because the technical problems with posing the human figure have been solved by the camera, Moreau could focus more attention on the Romantic style of the painting and the complicated composition.

Some artists of the period used photography for other purposes as well. Rodin was a pioneer in using photographs as marketing tools for his sculptures. Under his direction, Edward Steichen produced several series of photographs of his sculptures under different lighting conditions and from different viewpoints. On display in this collection is a study of his famous Monument to Balzac from 1897 alongside a series of photographs of the finished piece. To a great degree, these photographs by Steichen influenced the public reaction to this avant-garde work. Perhaps the idea of photo series influenced artists like Monet who painted several series of subjects (Haystacks, Water Lilies, and The Cathedral at Rouen) under different lighting conditions.

It is surprising to see how much the art of Paul Gaugin relied on photography for source material. Much like Moreau, he used photographs as preliminary sketches. But Gaugin also used photographs of sculptural friezes as inspiration for composition. From this he was able to incorporate elements of Javanese art into his finished works, giving them an exotic quality. He also found inspiration in postcards from abroad, then one of the few sources of photographs from foreign lands.

Both Fernand Khnopff and Franz Von Stuck used elaborate photography, including costumes and props as preparation for their paintings. Khnopff publicly denied the use of photography as a tool, although a great deal of sophisticated photographic equipment was found in his studio after his death. Von Stuck seems to have been more forthright in his use of the medium, basing many of his paintings on carefully composed photographic studies.

In the field of graphic design, Alphonse Mucha made use of a self-created encyclopedia of photographic poses. The influence of the camera as a compositional tool is quite evident in his finished work. His posters show cropped images against highly decorative Art Nouveau backgrounds. He was a founder of the Art Nouveau style, and was also a talented photographer in a time when it was not considered an art form. Several of his photographs from his journey to Russia are on display and show his power of composition.

The final selection of works is by Picasso. The collection showcases Boy With a Pipe, 1905, from the artist’s "Blue Period". Study of the artist’s collection of photographs indicates that his Blue and Rose periods may have been inspired by blue-tinted cyanotype prints of the time. Picasso also took a great many documentary and ethnic photographs which he later used in developing his cubist style. In looking at his work and the earlier work of Gaugin, you can easily see that the foreign influences on European art would never have been as strong had it not been for access to photography.

Rarely does an exhibition convey as clear a vision of artists’ thought processes as this one. Not only does the exhibit juxtapose source materials, studies and completed works, it also compares different artists from this dynamic period and effectively shows how each used photography to a different end. What becomes immediately apparent is that the camera has profoundly influenced the very concept of "modern art." The use of the camera forever changed the way artists perceive the world and their role as artists.

Jerry Becerra

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