japonisme: Degas, as he lives in my memory

05 October 2007

Degas, as he lives in my memory


József Rippl-Rónai

It is not easy to write on Degas the man; he shared his private life with few and was, anyway, a difficult man to approach, preferring to live in isolation, the sculptor Bartholomé was, so to speak, his only friend. With his help, Toulouse-Lautrec was the only one of our lot to cross the threshold of Degas' studio. What I know of Degas comes from Lautrec's stories, told in his characteristic, direct manner at our regular afternoon gatherings at the offices of the Revue Blanche, where several writers were also there to listen to him, thus Ernest La Jeunesse, Paul Adam, Félix Féneon, the two Natansons and many others, whose names I cannot remember right now. Oh yes!—one of them, to be sure, was that strange man, Alfred Jarry.

Lautrec told us that Degas jealously guards his best pieces, you might say that he alone takes his delight in them. He would not part with them for the world, certainly not to exhibit them. How happy that lucky man will be who now, after his death, will inherit them.

They say that in the late eighties he nearly lost the sight of his eyes. At that time he did not paint but modelled, but what is most intriguing, he fervently turned to photography, but to photography as an art. He posed real Degas pictures but in a painterly version. I have often heard it said that these photographs are marvellous, and since they mirror Degas' mind and soul, they are highly regarded as art. I can understand this love of beautiful, call them spoilt plates, because long before him I had made them myself, or had them made.

We, who were young at the time and decadent (in the best sense of the term) could see the works of this great painter only at Durand-Ruel's in the company of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose circle also included Maurice Denis, Valloton, Bonnard, and others, and later in the Caillebotte collection at the Galérie Luxembourg. At first we hesitated to do so, afraid to be clipped on the ears by someone in authority in front of Manet's Olympia, for instance, but, Renoir, Degas and the others were almost all also considered worse than lepers. To stand in front of any of these, staring at the painting for hours, was asking for trouble. We all remember well the shameless and impudent stipulation that these lepers could only exhibit in a small isolated room in the back, and only if Caillebotte was ready to add his stamp collection which was considered priceless. Preposterous, and my blood still boils when I recall that it was only after giving way to such an infamous demand that these artists—who are today loved by every man of good taste and sound judgement—could be heard or were allowed to breathe. Among them was Degas, the condemned.

I would not say that he was well-disposed towards young, ambitious searching artists of our kind. In fact, he showed little interest and would visit our exhibitions only in secret. And he was not alone in this. Cézanne, too, and Renoir did much the same. They knew scarcely anything about us, albeit we organized group shows at the most distinguished places, including Durand-Ruel's. If we had not helped ourselves, they would never have helped us. We had to stand firm by our convictions if we wanted to reach our goal which, thank the Lord, everyone of us in that small group was able to do. Later all of us, including the sculptor Maillol, made it to dry land. But except for Lautrec, who was more sociable than we were, we could never get near them, especially not into their studios.

I exhibited the paint- ing My Grand- mother in Paris about fifteen years ago. It caught the attention of a company of artists who had much sympathy for each other's work. Several of them are outstanding artists today, whom everyone talks about. About eight months ago Bernheim showed those of their works which Thadée Natanson now owns. Mirbeau provided a preface for the catalogue. Vuillard, Bonnard and Valloton are well represented. I often saw them after I moved from Paris to nearby Neuilly. They came to visit me on Sundays. Denis, Serusier, Ranson and for a time Cottet were also of the company, and Toulouse-Lautrec, too, until his death. The pioneers, and in part the most important predecessors of these artists were Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Seurat and Signac among the painters, and Rodin among the sculptors, and of course Maillol, of whom I have previously spoken. I am sure I do not have to explain to anyone familiar with modern art who these artists are. 1

i find it so interesting, the similarities in the work of many of these men. the "nabi look." of course each artist also had many looks. to see much more of rippl-ronai, check out this site.

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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