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Exhibition review Bourgeois voyeurism 

HENRY BELL steps warily through the collection of a Glaswegian war profiteer to experience his collection of Degas’ remarkable images of working people

Discovering Degas: Collecting in the Time of William Burrell
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow

 

Edgar Degas, L'Absinthe, 1875-1876  // Credit: Photo (c) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) Adrien Didierjean
Edgar Degas, L'Absinthe, 1875-1876 // Credit: Photo (c) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) Adrien Didierjean

THE Burrell Collection is an extraordinary museum not only because of its stunning and sensitively refurbished building — sheer glass and sandstone set amid lush Scottish woodland in the heart of Glasgow’s Southside — but also because of its focus. 

The Burrell is not arranged around any theme, period, school or medium but instead has as its organising principle the taste of a single turn of the 20th century Glaswegian capitalist. 

Impressionist paintings share rooms with Ming vases, Scottish medieval carvings, ancient Egyptian talismans and French tapestries. Still lifes painted by Courbet in prison after the Paris Commune appear next to 12th century German metalwork depicting Christ’s resurrection. 

Their only connection is that they were the private property of the shipping magnate William Burrell, a man of gross wealth and great taste.

As such, patronage, collecting and value are at the heart of the museum’s first major exhibition since its reopening — “Discovering Degas.”

Arranged around the 20 works by Degas that Burrell owned himself, the exhibition tells the story of how Degas’ work was bought and sold and how taste and aesthetics were forged between artist, dealers, critics and collectors. 

This relation between capital and art raises important questions around how and why the ruling class acquire and support art in order to hoard wealth and exert influence, questions that seem particularly relevant in Scotland as the Edinburgh International Book Festival announces that it is suspending sponsorship from Baillie Gifford amid pressure from Fossill Free Books to separate art funding from climate destruction and the genocide in Gaza. 

How Glasgow should relate to one of its great museums being the gift of one of its most famous war profiteers remains an open question. 

The exhibition itself begins with this relation between empire and taste, noting that Burrell, along with much of the Scottish public, would have first seen a work by Degas at the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition. Soon after this, Burrell purchased his first Degas, and we are shown how the modernity of Degas’ colours and compositions allied with his incredible technical ability appealed to collectors such as Burrell while shocking others in society. 

One review of the 1888 exhibition praised Degas’ talents and referred to him as “the least ridiculous of the Impressionists.”

Edgar Degas, Woman Ironing, // Credit: Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
Edgar Degas, Woman Ironing, // Credit: Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

The exhibition notes that there was a 15-year gap in Burrell’s collecting and that this was partly due to halted trade between Scotland and Europe during the first world war. It fails to mention the more significant detail that it was the war which made Burrell his fortune, and that his vastly increased wealth was a significant factor in his sudden burst of collecting. 

The exhibition — and the museum as a whole — deal well with race and gender, but they don’t yet seem ready to discuss class. By the 1920s Burrell was one among many capitalists collecting Degas’ images of working people. 

A key Glasgow art dealer of the era, Alexander Reid is highlighted as the link between Impressionists and the Scottish industrialists, introducing modern painting to Scotland. Reid was the son of a cabinet maker and a potter, and turned his father’s business carving figureheads for ships first into a framers, and then into an art dealership. 

Returning from Paris in 1887 — where Reid had lived with Vincent Van Gogh and built up friendships with Toulouse-Lautrec, Lavery and Whistler — his influence on the arts in Glasgow was huge. He is represented in the exhibition in a portrait by Van Gogh and a bust by the great Scottish sculptor and former shipbuilder, Benno Schotz. 

Reid was a merchant but he had something that the collectors featured in the exhibition deeply desired: personal knowledge of and connection to the geniuses of both the Paris and Glasgow scenes. 

The many early collectors of Degas are interestingly featured with potted biographies along one wall of the exhibition. Their money came from coal, railways, shipping and oil, and they poured this wealth into paintings. To appropriate a phrase of Norman Maccaig’s: they are able “to possess the art, but they are not possessed by it.” Reid seems to be the only actual bohemian to feature. 

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, // Credit: National Gallery London/CC
Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, // Credit: National Gallery London/CC

Degas’ work however is undeniably bohemian. Seen en masse here, the array of dancers, drinkers, critics and workers provide a dizzying abundance of movement and colour, all carefully and quietly lit to great effect. 

The paintings and drawings possess quintessentially Degasian features: asymmetrical compositions, informal posing, unusual vantage points, the bodies of women. These combine to provide a stark modernity but also a disquieting voyeurism. This sense is added to by notes in the exhibition that comment on Degas’ obsession with hair — he once combed a model’s hair for four hours in a single session — and the acknowledgement that the dancers he painted were deeply impoverished and often children, posing for the painter in excruciating positions for hours. 

In the remarkable painting L’absinthe this voyeurism spills into the real world as Degas has us observe a sex worker staring mournfully at a glass of absinthe. Modern life, addiction and the underclass provide a stark contrast to Degas’ more palatable ballerinas and the painting caused a scandal when first exhibited.  

This documentary sense to the work appears again in Peasant Woman where the subject is observed in a moment of rest, rather than seated for a portrait.

The simplicity of her headscarf and surroundings are made undeniably as beautiful as the costumes that Degas paints elsewhere. Contrasted with a glimpse of two bourgeois women observed in the Tuileries Gardens which is hung close by, we get a sense of what Degas is trying to show us.

He wrote: “Everything is beautiful in this world of the people.”  

The intensity with which he saw this beauty is most stark in his pictures of laundresses. These working women, making hard and dynamic movements amongst the softness of the upper classes’ clothes are, for Degas, clearly alive with vitality and beauty. Starkness, contrast and movement are all emphasised most in the oil paintings, such as the wonderful Woman Ironing, though they are sometimes saccharine in the pastels. 

Jockeys in the Rain, c.1883-1886 // Credit (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections
Jockeys in the Rain, c.1883-1886 // Credit (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections

Though Degas is associated with Bourgeois Paris — the opera, the cafes, the races — his subjects are in fact the working class, and even the lumpen-proletariat: sex workers, dancers, laundry-workers, circus performers. Among them, Miss La La — the only woman of colour he portrayed — stands out as a symbol of strength, vitality and subjugation. Miss La La is in the circus ring, dangling by her teeth: a thrilling image of beauty, strength and precarity. 

The Glasgow Museum curators powerfully and sensitively foreground Degas’ racism and the fact that his family’s wealth came from slavery. His own class position and bigotry further clarify the feeling of voyeurism.

This voyeurism is briefly disrupted when Woman Looking Through Field Glasses stares back at us. The accompanying preparatory sketch highlights Degas’ remarkable draughtsmanship. The striking ability then allows for the increasingly abstract ballet dancers — daubs of colour, and harsh lines of darkness — that make up the central part of the exhibition. Again charcoal and oil highlight his skill far more than the pastels he is famous for. 

This abstraction and reduction of the human form to movement and colour goes still further in his nudes. Here awkward limbs and voyeuristic angles are suffused with a realism that makes them strikingly modern. Tired dancers, resting women rubbing their feet, workers stretching and bathing — these are deeply bodily images. The heaving and heavy drama of Russian Dancers perhaps more so than any.

Here, in the context of one collector, the Burrell skillfully and sensitively presents the beauty and humanness of Degas and of the people he portrayed. 

Runs until September 30. For more information see: burrellcollection.com.

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