In painting, he peeped at the ballerinas from behind the stage wings. Naked women, ready to bathe, horses being prepared to race, portraits of important personalities. The Frenchman Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was an artist of the private world. But his intimate scenes did not necessarily serve to reflect the day to day life of a cultured Parisian, an assiduous follower of Parisian Opera.
Considered to be the least impressionist of the impressionists, Degas cultivated a fascination for movement. In his artistic trajectory, classical ballerinas and racehorses acquired importance as they possessed bodies trained for movement and for repetition. The greatest expression of his study on these themes is in his sculptural work which, never having been exposed to the public while he was alive, was later discovered in his studio workshop one year after his death.
The work is very dear to the Brazilian public. It is difficult to dissociate the name of the São Paulo Art Museum (Masp) from the image of the Fourteen-yea-Old Ballerina by Degas, a type of icon for the museum that possesses the largest collection of art in Latin America. The young girl, made of bronze, with her arms extended behind and her foot to the front, as if she were warming up for a spectacle, was found along with dozens of other ballerinas, jockeys, racehorses, and young women in the toilet. The seventy three pieces make up one of the four only complete collections of Degas sculptures in the world – the other three are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen.
In December 2000, the Degas sculptures at Masp caught the attention of the historian Ana Gonçalves Magalhães who defended her doctorate thesis with Degas Sculpture: From the Process of Casting to the Collection of Bronzes at the São Paulo Art Museum (Masp), in the Plastic Arts Department of the School of Communication and Arts of the São Paulo University (ECA/USP). Guided by the experienced art historian and professor, Walter Zanini, Ana developed her research over a four-year period with the help of a FAPESP doctorate scholarship and also received travel assistance from the Foundation that allowed her to visit England and France. In these countries she got in touch with well known specialists on the work of Edgar Degas, such as the Englishman Richard Kendall and the Frenchwoman Anne Pingeot, chief curator of sculpture at the Orsay Museum.
“The idea of developing this thesis came about during 1995 when I took a guided tour of Masp and I came across the complete collection being exposed”, Ana tells. “I was fascinated by the pieces and realized that through them I could carry out work similar to that of my master’s degree”, she explained. This had been developed at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) under the guidance of professor Jorge Coli and had involved an analysis of the two paintings of the impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) belonging to the Masp painting collection.
In that analysis, Ana studied the composition of the Monet work, placing emphasis on how the painter dealt with movement and how he had established relationships between his art and the arts of photography and of the cinema, newly born at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. The work resulted in the book Claude Monet – A Canoa e a Ponte [Claude Monet – The Canoe and the Bridge], edited by Editora Pontes, with support from FAPESP.
As part of her investigation into movement in the Degas’ sculptures, Ana photographed each one of the pieces in the Masp collection. The process started in January 1999, after a period of bibliography surveys. “This allowed me to obtain information about the background of these works before they arrived in Brazil”, she explained. Some indications of the backgrounds were investigated starting with the rubber stamps of the galleries through which the sculptures had passed – at least one German, the Fleichtheim Gallery, and one English, the Marlborough Gallery, who sold the works to Masp. Others starting with the group of Degas signatures created by the bronze metal founder of the sculptures.
In this period lies the greatest curiosity about the collection of Degas sculptures. Not one of the pieces was done in bronze by its creator. “All of the casting was posthumous. The original materials were wax, oakum, pieces of wire, cork, clay and plasticine, a type of synthetic material”, explains he researcher. After the death of the artist, his dealer, Joseph Durand-Ruel, left to Albert Bartholomé, sculpture and intimate friend of Degas, the task of having the work cast, the one hundred and fifty statues that had been found in his studio workshop.
The casting foundry belonging to Adrien A. Hébrard got the job Having found many of them in poor condition of conservation, only seventy two of them could be used. According to the agreement signed between the foundry and Degas’ heirs, from each one of them, twenty two pieces were cast, consequently producing twenty two series of which twenty were placed on the market for sale. These twenty series were named “A” to “T” and the majority of the pieces belonging to Masp are from series ‘S’, or that is to say, the 19th commercial series. “Only half a dozen is not part of it”, says Ana. The 73rd piece is in fact the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Ballerina, the only one exhibited by Degas, when alive, during the impressionist exposition of 1881. It was cast separately from the twenty two series of seventy two pieces and from twenty five pieces were cast, three more than forecast in the agreement. The wax originals of Degas’ sculptures can currently be found in the Washington National Gallery.
“We don’t know very much about the foundry process, other than that it lasted nearly a decade, beginning in 1919”, says the historian. The Masp collection was bought in 1951, around two years after Gilberto Chateaubriand and Pietro Maria Bardi had received a letter from London. The writer was the owner of the Marlborough Gallery, who said he was interested in selling a complete Degas collection to a large museum, assuming that the museum took on the commitment of keeping the collection together. “I don’t know the price, but I believe the collection was not all that expensive, since there were lots of family inheritances for sale at that time and the art market was bankrupt”, Ana observes.
“The impact of the arrival of the pieces in Brazil was huge” says Luiz Hossaka, the curator at Masp. He had already begun working at the museum in 1954 when the Degas collection arrived in the country. “Furthermore, Chateaubriand knew how to rally artists, politicians, businessmen, indeed everybody”, he explains. As soon as they were disembarked, the sculptures were put on show at the Itamaraty Palace in Rio de Janeiro, and afterwards at the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM-SP).
This happened more or less simultaneously to an itinerant exhibition of a Masp collection through various European capitals, which culminated in a large exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “The Degas’ sculptures didn’t go there because they were dealing with a painting exhibition only”, highlights Ana. Curiously, says the researcher, when that exhibition arrived in New York, the Degas pieces purchased by Bardi and Chateaubriand were already ten times more valuable than when they had been acquired in 1951.
Of the 6,800 works that make up the Masp collection, the seventy three Degas bronzes represent the main collection regarding sculptured art. “We always get a little afraid when they are asked for by other countries’ museums. However, due to their importance, it is difficult to refuse a loan”, says Eunice Morais Sophia, the coordinator of the museum’s total collection. “Among our precautions is the fact that we ask them to be transported in at least three different aircraft, since, should there be an accident, it prevent from losing the whole collection”, she explains.
The environment under which the pieces are put on exhibition must also be examined. “On moving from one environment to another, the sculptures can be damaged. The ideal is that they remain in a locality of low humidity”, says Karen Cristine Barbosa, the coordinator of Masp’s Conservation and Restoration Department. The museum’s Degas sculptures have been put on exhibition at various American and European institutions, such as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
“It’s very interesting to note that the collection allows completely different exhibitions to be organized”, observes Eunice. “One can set up an exhibition only about the techniques of classical ballet, or only about intimate scenes of young women in the bathroom, or even only concerning racehorses. When the international curators ask for the pieces on loan, they generally already have an idea about the form in which they can best be made use of in order to realize the goal of their exhibition”, she states. Luiz Hossaka recalls that during the 50’s it was common to see drawing and dance students visiting the collection.
The sculptural work of Degas is surrounded by some mysteries, as yet to be unveiled by art history. One question that comes up is why the painting master, heir to the tradition of style developed by Raphael (1483-1520) and Ingres (1780-1867), left his sculptures hidden in his workshop, having brought to the public eye only the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Ballerina. “A hypothesis defended by scholars up until the 80s is that the exhibition of the Ballerina in 1881 was such a huge disappointment that Degas had then given up the idea of exhibiting his sculptures”, explained Ana. “Personally, from what I’ve read about his character, I think it would’ve been difficult for Degas to have been a man who would’ve been intimidated by this type of thing”, she pondered.
The fact is that in 1881 the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Ballerina was not understood as a piece of sculpture. “Degas chose many alternative materials in order to do it . Originally it was of wax, clothed in a ballet tutu and a real cloth bodice. There was a ribbon bow and a wig on the head”, tells Ana. “For the 19th century, these were everyday materials to be used in an outline and not in a finished piece”, she goes on. There was also a contradiction since wax was widely used in the science and wax museums to make highly realistic parts. Consequently Degas’ ballerina played around with this realistic aspect, beginning with its size, equivalent to two thirds of the natural size. However, after the sculptured collection of Degas became public, the young ballerina was a success. “When she arrived in Brazil, the ballerina was already a representative icon of Degas’ work”, she points out.
Many theories put forward believe that Degas became accustomed to leaving his sculptures far from the public eye as they served as a draft for his drawings and paintings. Others believe that his relation with sculpture only intensified during the last few years of his life when he was gradually losing his vision as a result of an accident that he had suffered during the Franco-Prussian War”. Without a doubt, painting was always the visiting card for Degas’ work, but during all of his life he had worked in various mediums with the same intensity”, explains Ana.
“He developed his sculpture from an early age in the decade of the 1860s. One of the first courses he signed up for at the School of Fine Arts was sculpture. Perhaps what had happened is that he believed that his sculpture had still not reached the point of maturity in order for it to be exhibited”, concludes the researcher. This is something understandable for an artist contemporary to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), according to hypotheses brought up in the researcher’s thesis.
On the other hand, according to the researcher, the blindness contributed to the approximation of the artist towards 3-dimensional work. “However, at a certain point in 1912, Degas had to abandon the building where he had kept his studio workshop. He became very ill and began to walk the streets of Paris. Finally, he ended up quitting painting”, tells the historian.
Among the historic information discovered by Ana from the manuscripts and photographs taken of the pieces, is that they must have belonged to an important German art gallery in the 20s, the Fleichtheim Gallery. Degas’ art dealer, who was also the editor of an expressive German magazine of modern art, migrated to England during the rise of the Nazis, which give us a clue as to how the sculptures ended up in London. The pieces also bear the stamps of French customs, those that were widely used until the 40’s each time that a work of art left the country.
In order to understand the transformation process of the sculptures done in diverse materials into works cast in bronze, Ana had to visit the workshops of artists specialized in the techniqueoflost wax. In this technique, an original piece of work is covered with plaster which produces a mold that is then filled with wax. Then it is placed in a high temperature oven in which the melted wax leaves the mold through an orifice. From that moment onwards, the cavity of the recipient serves as a receptacle for the bronze and the original piece is reproduced exactly like the original.
“It’s curious to note how the founder was concerned with reproducing the pieces exactly in the form that Degas left them”, observes Ana. Tool marks, the absence of arms or details were maintained, which shows that there was no preoccupation, on the part of the founder, in attempting to imagine what final result the artist had desired.
In Ana’s opinion, it would be necessary to use more sophisticated techniques to identify other details about the founding process of the Degas bronzes. For example, the use of X-rays would allow the identification of the nature of the castings of the pieces: if they were founded in parts or soldered in the same manner.
“This collection of sculptures is one of the public’s favorites. For this reason, we become sad when it’s loaned out to other institutions”, laments Eunice. It is worth noting that the care taken with the young women and horses of Degas is such that the ribbons in the hair of the ballerinas on exhibition are not the originals. These are preserved in an appropriate environment. Today two dozen of the sculptures can be viewed on the second floor of Masp, at the side of two paintings of the French artist.
The Edgar Degas sculpture collection at Masp (nº 96/02840-9); Modality
Doctorate scholarship; Advisor Walter Zanini – Plastic Arts Department of the School of Communication and Arts of São Paulo University (ECA/USP);
Investment R$ 85,824.42