The naked eye

Why do you paint women so ugly, Monsieur Degas?” a Parisian hostess once inquired. “Parce que la femme en général est laide, madame,” came the reply. This was belied by the frothy dancers in last year’s lovely Degas and the Ballet at the Royal Academy; more demanding, and going to the heart of Degas’ pioneering modernity, are his brutally frank, awkward nudes, squatting, washing, drying themselves, clambering in or out of the bath, pulling tangles from their hair. They are the subject of the Musée d’Orsay’s new show Degas et le Nu, the third in the Paris museum’s ambitious series – Monet in 2010, Manet in 2011 – repositioning impressionist masters as contemporary precursors, and the most persuasive and original.

Among his peers, Degas stood out for his attachment to the Old Masters but ended anticipating every aspect of modernism. His evolution turned crucially on the nude, so this exhibition is close to a retrospective in its sweep. Most fresh and exhilarating are the displays of rarely seen works on paper, where Degas worked through ideas and made images he dared not show in public – notably the brothel nudes in monotype in black ink of the 1870s.

‘Woman Combing her Hair’ (1886-90)

Angular or excessively curved, disjointed or imperfectly proportioned, with animal-like faces or none at all, these women, usually depicted washing between clients, are as savage as Picasso’s primitivist figures three decades later. A superb draughtsman, Degas contoured the forms of his bathers with his fingers, delicately rendering flesh and the hollows of their bodies, emphasised by the intense lighting – the backlit “Nude Woman Combing Her Hair”, the dark atmosphere illuminated by the reflection of water in the basin in “The Tub”, the fire in the hearth in “Waiting”, the harsh lamplight in the swirling black interior “Nude Woman Reclining on her Bed”. Refusing to allow his studio to be dusted, Degas sought mysterious, chiaroscuro effects that recall Rembrandt’s prints, being rediscovered at the time; the results give an extraordinary sense of privacy – arresting and disconcerting.

The gulf in sensibility between these nocturnal monotypes and the laboured anatomical drawings of Degas’ youth is dramatic. “The muscles, I know them, they’re my friends – but I’ve forgotten their names,” Degas would say, invoking the words of his idol, the neoclassicist Ingres. In a decisive early meeting, Ingres advised: “Draw lines ... lots of lines, from nature and from memory.” The 21-year-old Degas set about copying Ingres’ “Valpinçon Bather”, a nude seen from the back. This viewpoint, and the intimate setting, foreshadow the motif of the woman at her toilette, face turned away so that all concentration is on the body, which would dominate his mature oeuvre.

The drawing, “Standing Nude, Seen from Behind” (1860), shows the pure line Degas inherited from Ingres but deployed in an informal, surprising pose, with a daring foreshortening in the zigzag arms. Degas had not yet abandoned his hope of becoming a history painter, preferring classical themes, but increasingly his paintings centred on nude figures, as in “Young Spartans Exercising” – already a little ungainly, and ambivalent in the frisson of sexuality between the preening naked boys and strenuous girls who seem to challenge them. “Scene of War in the Middle Ages” (1863-65) was his final historical piece, unremarked at the salon but significant for the plethora of fleeing nude women in anguished poses, their rich golden and red hair flowing forward sensuously, contrasting with their pallid skin but echoing the gold-red tones of one of the horses, and the saddles, of their tormentors.

For the next 40 years, such auburn-haired, twisting women, their bodies sometimes unflatteringly cropped, relocated in 19th-century bathrooms, and portrayed in virtuoso flesh tones in broken strokes of pastel, came to occupy the centre of Degas’ art. He likened them to the bathing Susanna, spied upon by the Biblical elders – a favourite Old Master subject – and played majestic composition, redolent of history painting, against stark, unbecoming postures embodying 19th-century naturalism.

The monumental “Young Woman Dressing Herself” horrified contemporaries as “a fat bourgeoise ... large, dumpy, with swollen flesh and enormous buttocks”. The sinuous contorted figure in “Woman at Her Toilette, Drying Her Left Foot” is folded in on her own body as she stretches to reach her toes. The grand, crouching bather in “The Tub” is seen from above in an audacious perspective that, wrote impressionist champion Gustave Geffroy, “spared nothing of her amphibian allure, her ripened breasts, the heaviness of her lower body, the bending of her legs, the length of her arms, the stunning appearance of her belly”.

At the end of his life Degas wondered whether he had “perhaps too much considered women as animals”. Intimate yet detached, his nudes as specimens anticipate those of Lucian Freud, as well as the seminal distorting figuration of Picasso and Matisse, whose early “Blue Nude” was also hailed as a “toad”.

Do Degas’ nudes look ugly today or did they introduce a new understanding of truth as beauty? You can argue the case through most of this show but the final galleries, devoted to his radiant late works, vanquish debate. Here forms dissolve in a flurry of pastel strokes, smudges, sponging, hatching and finger marks. A swathe of abstract pinkish-white is perhaps a towel offered to the bather subsumed in blue-gold effects, like sparkling marble, in “Woman Seated on a Bathtub Sponging Her Neck”. The cool metallic bathtub sets off warm flesh against a sunbathed curtain, peach-green-blue wallpaper, grey-white panels in “After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck”. In the largest, most complex pastel Degas ever made, “Breakfast after the Bath”, passages of daylight and recurring shadow, frenzy and calm – the bather’s long hair flying, her towel swaying, while her maid waits with a steady gaze – alternate across scintillating multicoloured surfaces.

“Woman Combing Her Hair” places an ivory figure half-robed in white, bisected by thick auburn hair reaching her knees, among saturated patches of riotous colour complementing her body and coiffure, and barely coming into focus as objects: a patterned carpet, a gold chaise longue, skirts and petticoats cast across the furniture. Lucian Freud said that pastel might have been invented for Degas; in the excellent catalogue, curator George Shackelford notes that in the late pictures, the pleasure of observation is inextricably linked with the medium itself, the seductive textures of paper with charcoal and pastel, canvas with oil pigments, as, “retreating from the public eye, after 1890 Degas treats the nude for himself, for his own gratification and for his own celebration of the body”.

It is a sublime conclusion to a tremendous exhibition.

‘Degas et le Nu’, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, until July 1,

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