Photo of “Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor” at the Norton Simon Museum | All photos courtesy of the Norton Simon Art Foundation

Hit play below to listen to our Arts Alive feature on Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor at the Norton Simon.


 
 

Look closely when you visit Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor at the Norton Simon. On display is the Museum’s entire collection of modèles, bronzes cast from Degas’ original wax and plaster statuettes, plus pastels, drawings and paintings from the artist.

Lean in and you can see Degas’ own fingerprints in a dancer’s tutu, or an out-of-place shape in the base of a statue where the cork Degas stuffed inside wire armatures to give them shape had poked out and was captured in bronze.

Photo of “Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor” at the Norton Simon Museum

Photo of “Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor” at the Norton Simon Museum

There is a lot in this exhibit that rewards close attention. And a lot to learn about the creative process of a man who started making modèles in the 1860s so he could capture different poses by dancers, horses, and other subjects, and figure out how to give the characters in his paintings a sense of movement.

“But over time,” says exhibition curator Emily Talbot, “it seems like sculpting took on a life of its own to some degree. There are a few where he put so much detail into them, that we think sculpting became a kind of side practice that was interesting to him in its own right.”

The bronzes in the exhibit aren’t lined up against the wall as you often find them in museums. Instead, they’re in the middle of the floor, so you can walk all the way around them and see how Degas became Degas.

Bronze no. 26 is called The Tub, and it’s an example of a modèle that Degas seems to have made purely for the love of sculpting, and not so he could have a model for a painting.

“The Tub”, modeled 1889; cast 1919-21; Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917); Bronze, No. 26, Modèle cast; Norton Simon Art Foundation

“It’s a figure of a bather inside an aluminum tub, and we’ve included a reproduction of the original in wax and plaster so you can get an idea of how varied his materials were and how multi-colored,” says Talbot. “The bather was modeled in red wax, and set inside this aluminum rim. Then he poured liquid plaster inside that rim, and then dipped rags into plaster and arranged them around the basin to give you the sense of a decorative motif, but also one that looks like a crumpled towel.”

In his life, these informal small-scale studies would have been seen only by close friends and visitors to Degas’ studio in Paris. After his death, the artists’ heirs picked 74 of the best-preserved modèles to cast in bronze and sell as an edition. The craftsmen that cast The Tub used different variations of metal and finishes to preserve some of the variety in Degas’s wax and plaster original.

Also on display are Degas favorites from the museum’s collection like paintings and pastels of graceful dancers on the stage and Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.

“Dancers in the Rotunda at the Paris Opera”, c. 1875-1878; reworked c. 1894; Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917); Oil on Canvas; Norton Simon Art Foundation

“I’m hoping by installing them in close proximity to the sculptures that people will be able to appreciate some new aspects of their forms,” says Talbot.

KUSC listeners might enjoy knowing that Degas wasn’t just fascinated by ballet, he was also a committed lover of classical music and opera.

Talbot says, “we know that he traveled to Brussels just to hear a particular musician perform, and when he was in New Orleans in the early 1870’s visiting one of his brothers, he bemoans the fact that they don’t have an opera there. He’s such a dedicated opera-goer that he sees some performances 15, 20, 37 times. He’s going to see music many many times a week, it’s a part of his whole lifestyle.”

Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor is on view through April 9th, and is part of an international celebration of the centenary of Degas’s death. Along with the exhibit, the Norton Simon is hosting tours, lectures, an evening of art-making and film screenings. Click here for details.

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