French, 1834-1917, After the Bath, Woman Drying her Back 1896 (Gelatin silver print)
Edgar Degas’ relationship with photography is well known. Perhaps more than any other major painter of the nineteenth century, he fed voraciously upon the new, raw, fragmented vision of the world afforded by the camera. The result was a nervy, paradoxical view of modern life. His spatially dynamic compositions and constant shifts of focus between social classes captured the verve of the urban milieu and documented the fundamental changes taking place in city life. His pictures’ unsettling ambiguities reflected not simply his formal painterly concerns, but charted (however obliquely) a gradual, yet distinct blurring of social barriers and the first stirrings of female emancipation.
Degas’ intriguing blend of personal conservatism and artistic radicalism is seen at its peak in his bathers. Unlike his compatriot Auguste Renoir, the typical Degas subject was not a lusty maiden disporting herself in a classical Arcadian setting, but an ordinary woman at her everyday ablutions, washing her body or hair ‘like a cat licking herself.’ They remain his most controversial works, earning the disapprobation of contemporary critics for their contorted poses and extreme naturalism, criticism frequently veiled by the charge of misogyny. J. K. Huysmans, typically, talked of their ‘authentic cruelty’ and ‘patient hatred.’ Recent commentators have been more positive, as our understanding of the painter’s complex, if paradoxical vision has deepened. Eunice Lipton and others have argued that it was not misanthropy, but the uncomfortable social ambiguities in Degas’ oeuvre which unsettled bourgeois male critics. His nudes did not quite play the conventional ‘voyeur/possessor’ game. Nor did they lend themselves to cheap moralising with regard to their patently lower class subjects.
That may be so, but of course Degas was also a formalist, so it is possible to overdo social readings of his work. A fundamental quest in his career long trek from history painter to realist was a concern for redefining the pose. He was pre-eminently an artist who drew upon and from life in a strictly formal sense. There is little to suggest that this photograph – one of the few either taken by him or at his instigation – was anything more than an aide mémoire, to help him with one of his more severe poses, a position no model could hope to sustain for too long. Nevertheless, this scrofulous little snapshot contains the power of the paintings in embryo and serves to teach us an invaluable lesson, both about Degas and what the art of the nude might gain from the photographic medium. This tense, vital study of a dynamically taut back evinces a passion and an intimacy rarely seen in photographs of the nude up to this date. It carries not the emotive tug of desire but a profoundly intellectual passion for committed scrutiny – a ‘vibrant nervousness’, as Huysmans aptly put it – that takes us far beyond crude voyeurism. In the hands of an artist like Degas, and in the minds of those who came to appreciate the medium’s propensity for truly intimate expression, the most advanced and knowing representations of nakedness became powerful articulations of psychological intensity.