Degas and photography

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Edgar Degas, In a café (The Absinthe drinker), 1875-76

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has announced its 2016 Winter Masterpieces blockbuster, Degas: A New Vision. Edgar Degas was one of the key Impressionist painters in the late 19th century.

The exhibition draws together hundreds of Degas’ works from galleries in 13 countries. NGV director Tony Ellwood said the exhibition announcement was a timely celebration of Australia’s connection with French art and culture. (The Age)

Degas is particularly relevant to photographers because he was one of the earliest painters to show incorporate a photographic vision in his art. A keen photographer himself at the dawn of amateur photography in the 19th century, he used the medium to record subjects for his paintings. In doing so, he seemed to predict the subject matter and aesthetics of photography in the future.

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Brassaï, Couple d’amoureux dans un bistrot, rue Saint-Denis, 1932

These days, Degas abandons himself entirely to his new passion for photography” (1895)

Some works by Degas show an uncanny affinity to the accidental compositions of candid photography and street reportage, almost before these genres arrived. Look at his painting of the Place de la Concorde with its strangely cut off figures entering and leaving the frame. With its complete lack of “bella figura”, the aestheticised harmony of classical painting, it’s more like an offbeat street photograph by Lee Friedlander in the 1970s than a painting by a trained artist in the 1870s.

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Edgar Degas, Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde, 1875

“Degas’ photographic figure studies, portraits of friends and family, and self-portraits were made in the evenings, when Degas transformed dinner parties into photographic soirees, requisitioning the living rooms of his friends, arranging oil lamps, and directing the poses of dinner guests enlisted as models.” (from Edgar Degas: Photographer, Met Publications)

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Comparison of Degas photograph and painting, 1890s

There’s no indication yet if the exhibition will include his photography or draw attention to the influence photography had on his painting. But it will still be an opportunity to see the original works and know that many were fertilized by the young medium. It will be interesting to speculate on which ones contain that seed.

Degas: A New Vision will open at the NGV in St Kilda Road on June 24, 2016.

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