By Rosemary Chandler
BOSTON — A nude woman lowers herself into an empty metal washbasin, bending her knees and supporting her weight with one hand, while pushing a knot of thick red hair on top of her head with the other. Her head is bent downwards, and she is oblivious to the presence of the large crowd that has gathered behind her, catching her unaware in this intimate moment of her daily life. “The Tub,” first exhibited at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886, continues to captivate viewers at its temporary new home in Boston as part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s latest exhibition, “Degas and the Nude,” filling them with the same voyeuristic pleasure that it first inspired over a century ago in Paris. The work is quintessentially Degas, and it is an exciting inclusion in the show.
“Degas and the Nude,” the product of a joint collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée d’Orsay, is an incredible collection of 145 of Degas’s nudes. Featuring works created throughout his lifetime in a number of different mediums — including painting, pastel, drawing, monotype, etching, lithograph and sculpture — the exhibition provides a comprehensive view of Degas’s artistic career. It begins with his early academic sketches, which he created as a young man while studying old masterworks in Italy, and continues into a room dedicated to his brief career as a history painter. This clear progression of classical art then diverges into something quite different: the scenes of contemporary life for which Degas is famous. Scores of nudes line the walls of the large, central room of the exhibition, at first presenting the viewer exclusively with scenes from inside of Parisian brothels, and then transitioning into a softer subject matter of unrobed bourgeoisie women and ballerinas.
The exhibition is masterfully arranged, enabling the viewer to trace the development of certain themes throughout Degas’s artistic career, and allowing Degas’s complicated feelings toward women to rise to the surface. Walking past work after work of women arranged in nearly identical poses, his obsession with the naked female form becomes obvious. A certain amount of distance between the artist and his female subjects also becomes clear. While the angle from which he shows his models is constantly shifting as he illustrates them first from the front, then from behind, the side and above, he seems unwilling to move too close to them.
The viewer might also notice a common thread of misogyny that unites the exhibition. In the second room, his nude studies for his large historical work, “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” depict women suffering in a range of contorted poses, who appear to be wounded, or dead, or perhaps somewhere in between. These works speak to the forced submission of women to the power of men. Only one of these women takes up a position of defense, wielding a wooden bow and arrow. Yet she does so feebly, as if she does not have the strength to command her weapon, and she appears bound for certain destruction.
In the later rooms, this hostility toward women is less blatant, but by no means has it disappeared. Like the women in “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” they too are denied power over their fate. Degas illustrates his nudes with their heads bent downward, completely unaware of the viewers standing a few feet away from them, feasting upon their naked flesh. Positioned in a way that makes it impossible to acknowledge the viewer, they are unable to exert ownership over their own bodies, leaving them powerless and exposed for all time.
Degas once said, “A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.” He would be satisfied to know, then, that despite his nudes having been arranged in the most comprehensive exhibition to date, his feelings toward women remain unknowable, clouded as they are by contradiction. It is unlikely that anyone will walk away from the exhibition with any certainty on the matter. However, it is equally unlikely that anyone will walk away bored.
(“Degas and the Nude” continues through February 5, 2012 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston. Call (617) 267-9300.)