More Than Just A Pretty Face

An MFA show reveals that Degas' love wasn't limited to ballerinas

But the shadowy, rich black monotypes seem like warm-ups for the color monotypes of the early 1890s and the pastels related to them. Indeed, the MFA's installation revolves around these brooding color monotypes of the Burgundy countryside. In them, Degas could smear the ink around with his fingers to fashion curves, contours and masses that became cliffs, roads, mountain lakes, openings and closings. Strips of sky, swaths of woodland and broad expanses of road and river make up the compositions, often distributed in block-like geometric forms. The most absorbing works in the show, such as Landscape and Squall in the Mountain, are lean and reductive. Like images glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye, they seem about to vanish.

In no other medium did Degas luxuriate in color so freely, allowing paint to flow across his picture surface and mingle with brightly tinted dabbings and thumbprints. The palette is very much Degas' own, and the colors congeal as convincing evocations of landscape. To late 20th-century eyes, they display a Degas more modern, personal and abstract than we would have thought existed. Their sense of imminence conveys an artist possessed, perhaps even prophesying Mark Rothko's luminous fields or Helen Frankenthaler's untrammeled pools of color a half-century later.

Some of the works at the MFA contain anthropomorphic imagery, ranging from the enigmatic and discreet to a private pun that might amuse a fellow artist. Steep Coast features a recumbent female nude of gigantic proportions at ease on a cliff top, cushioned by grassy mounds and summer flowers. Landscape is more explicitly sexual -- what first appears to be a scattering of boulders and monoliths soon becomes a huge phallus surrounded by glimpses of thigh, knee and a hirsute, protuberant belly. In the final section of the exhibition, Degas' willingness to cross the boundary between perception and fantasy often dissolves into a muddied exercise. The large canvases produced at the village Saint-Valery-sur-Somme are a bittersweet coda lacking the confident vitality of the pastel monotypes.

You will do best in this show if you stick to the works. Don't worry too much about what the panels or the overproduced audiotape have to say about them. The works -- some of them showstoppers -- speak well enough for themselves, despite being installed in gauche wine and mint-green galleries. The audio seems intent on reducing the complexities of Degas' landscapes to soundbites, constantly telling us which hues we're looking at. What's more, the flowery narratives are accompanied by a mood-swelling orchestra and interludes of chirping sea gulls. Degas, an artist of paradoxical concerns whose radical art reflects keen observations, deserves more credit than this, and so do MFA viewers. Still, "Degas Landscapes" succeeds in taking us closer than most exhibitions to the idea of the artist as an engine for testing the very limits of description. You'll get a sense of Degas as a real artist, with a range that includes the genius as well as the flaws.

"Degas Landscapes" will show through July 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7300.

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