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More Than Just A Pretty Face

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

Edgar Degas always regarded the human figure as the most important subject for art. He built himself a reputation as the principal figure painter of the Impressionist circle with his images of athletic ballerinas, nude bathers, tired laundresses and brazen cafe-concert artistes. And his views about landscape were firm: "If I were the government," he once remarked, "I would have a company of police watching out for men who paint landscapes from nature."

But the artist who poked fun at his Impressionist friends for painting outdoors is now revealed to be a landscapist himself. What's more, he valued his renderings of nature so highly that he made them the focus of the only solo exhibition he ever organized: an 1892 display of landscape pastels at the famous Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris.

Now, a pioneering exhibition of 75 works at the Museum of Fine Arts reunites for the first time in a century more than 30 of the artist's pastels and monotypes, as well as his remarkable landscape paintings, watercolors and drawings. "Degas Landscapes," organized by George Shackelford, curator of European painting and sculpture at the MFA, and Colta Ives, curator of prints and illustrated books at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, aims to enlarge our opinion of Degas. Not only does the show provide the startling discovery that Degas made landscapes starting in his student years and continuing until he was in his sixties, it also showcases the astonishing freedom with which he approached nature. Add to this the exhaustive 300-page study by English painter and art historian Richard Kendall that serves as the exhibition catalog, and the curators lay odds that we'll never think about Degas in the same way again.

Degas' finest accomplishments as a landscape painter and printmaker hold their own alongside his other works, as the MFA show capably demonstrates. So why isn't this side of him better known? Kendall suggests in the catalog that established ideas may simply be hard to shake: "Taking his reputation as the painter of dancers at face value, we have tended to tidy up Degas' career, seeing him as the odd man out in a predominately pastoral Impressionist enterprise."

Of course, Degas himself may have been responsible for this state of affairs. Always mindful of his reputation and ready with a mischievous tongue, the artist took great pleasure in proclaiming the superiority of pictures made in the studio and in satirizing the outdoor practices of his friends. But perhaps posterity has been too quick to swallow his bait; a more critical examination of Degas' travels, notebooks and unfamiliar works reveals an astute and sophisticated relationship with his natural surroundings. For Degas, landscape could be a link with the past and a bridge into the future, a pretext for irresponsibility and a challenge to perceptual orthodoxy. He carried landscape to the very brink of coherence.

Degas' early works are some of the freshest in the MFA show, including the studies of Naples, Rome and the Roman campagna that he drew and painted in the 1850s as a student following in the footsteps of Valenciennes and Corot. On his return to Paris in 1859, Degas experimented with many of the motifs that he would pursue in his mature works, including the equestrian landscapes. At the Races serves as Degas' attempt to create a modern equestrian landscape that corresponds to the clamorous experience of the racetrack; in this case, the rain-drenched tones and gloomy atmosphere suggest the shadowy pastures and lush hillsides of the Normandy horse country.

While summering in Normandy in 1869, Degas achieved his first triumphant rapprochement with landscape, a series of some 40 pastels in which he noted the effects of changing light and weather on land and sea. Eleven of these scenes are on view at the MFA, more than have ever been presented together before. Degas uses pastels to achieve a light-soaked effect more ethereal and glowing than oil paints could create. Though they bring to mind the plein-air effects of Boudin and Monet, the best examples are almost scientific. And, finely observed and largely descriptive though they may be (more than a few approach postcard prettiness), they indicate that Degas accepted the banality of the atmosphere and uneventfulness of the seashore. By reducing his compositions to simple bands defining land, sea and sky, Degas could depict the sheer emptiness of the scenes. Their amorphous, subject-less voids have their origins in the steams and mists of Turner, as well as in the soulful expanses of Caspar David Friedrich. But Degas' horizon is generally flat and his laying on of tones as clinical as the annotations in his notebook: "Villers-sur-Mer, sunset, cold and dull orange-pink, whitish green, neutral, sea like a sardine's back and clearer than the sky." In the late 1860s, Degas and his colleagues from the Salon of Realists had long since fallen under the spell of the Japanese wood-block print; a number of Degas' pastel landscapes show a lively response to Japanese art, particularly Hiroshige's use of tone, color and local detail to address the vastness of the ocean or the emptiness of the shore.

While the pastels stemmed from a tranquil kind of seeing, Degas' monotypes came out of a struggle with a slippery medium. The dozen small black monotypes Degas produced in the late 1870s -- Factory Smoke, Rest in the Field and The River, among others -- are at once charming, free and deliberately crude. Degas discovered that he could draw and paint with greasy ink on the surface of a smooth copper printing plate, then apply a sheet of paper to that plate and transfer the image under pressure. This technique liberated Degas from his academic compulsion to tinker and refine: the substance on the metal plate remains wet and open to adjustment until the print is taken, with a result not strictly foreseeable.

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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