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Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec at the Tate

The Tate, 5 Oct 05 - 15 Jan 06
Review by Annabel Mednick

As I sit here with the much-thumbed catalogue beside me, I realise that the show is almost as good in retrospect, the gems of the experience glowing as I relive the moments.

You enter the first room, and there are the ballet paintings by Degas that you know so well. I am so used to these images. I have seen reproductions of them again and again, but always so small, and the subject matter seemed to be the significant element. But now here they are big. Big. In The Dance Class the composition, his mastery of design, jumps out at you. He cuts the canvas in two, sticks a spiral staircase in front of the on the dark left hand side, with the feet of the girls just appearing running down the stairs, the spiral shapes continuing into the room with the position of the ballerinas giving the painting flow and movement. A brief rest with the seated girl, then on through into the light. The influence of the dawn of photography urges him to be experimental and brave, cropping figures in two.

Other paintings loom up, demanding the attention of my memory. Whistler's Harmony in Grey and Green, Miss Cicely Alexander miserable and itchy, bored of posing, sullenly looks down on you. Again a giant painting, I notice the butterflies around her head, some flowers to the right.

I turn - Tissot's beautifully painted The Gallery of HMS Calcutta, you can feel the wind flowing past, his composition dynamic with the sweeping deck diagonal across the picture, the triangular light cutting in, and the tension created by the three figures the arching shapes of the women echoing somehow the movement of the boat as it sails into Portsmouth.

I am thrilled to see Lautrec's The Clowness Cha-U-Kao up close. Ooh, he is bold! The night life of Paris burns bright - you just love those people.

There are new finds too. Philip Wilson Steer's beautiful pastel The Sprigged Frock, and William Rothenstein's Parting at Morning, although his other work doesn't live up to the promise of this beautiful drawing. Chalk, pastel and bronze paint on paper, life-size at 129.5 x 50.8 cm, a young woman grimly confronts you, her chemise off her shoulders. But this is no peek-a-boo drawing. Her breasts remain covered. She is resigned, gaunt. It suggests Picasso in its rawness.

Sickert's world is grim and rough - no sentimentality here - this is the back end of town, not an easy ride. But for me, the star is Degas. The consistency of his work is so impressive, one after another, again and again. Explorative, dynamic, just plain brilliance. L'Absinthe - wow. I went home and took hundreds of pictures in the pub that night.

 

--Annabel Mednick, February 2006.

 

Examples of work by Edgar Degas can be seen on the Musée d'Orsay (Paris) website.

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