ESCONDIDO — A new exhibit at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido displays the private collection of the French impressionist Edgar Degas.
Called “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist, Works on Paper by the Artist and his Circle,” the exhibit offers a rare glimpse at the private work of the artist, a pioneer of the impressionism artistic genre. Additionally, it features the work of “his circle,” or art collected by Degas from his peers in the mid-1800s.
This particular exhibit has traveled across the U.S. since 2011, co-curated by Oklahoma State University art history professor Louise Siddons and Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The two formerly worked together at the San Francisco museum.
Siddons said the exhibit is a way to reimagine Degas, a titanic figure of his time who lived from 1834 to 1917, as well as the people he surrounded himself with.
“I think the significance of the exhibition is not simply that it was Degas’ collection, although as a superlative artist himself he had a wonderful eye, but the way in which looking at a well-known artist’s collection reminds us that any individual artist is part of a broad and sometimes surprising network,” Siddons said. “Museums and academics have historically given short shrift to artists who they have considered marginal, or who don’t fit neatly into innovative movements. When we look at social networks rather than individuals, however, those margins — and their overlaps — often become the most interesting part of the story.”
The over 100 pieces on display include drawings and prints, photographs, sculpture and more. It includes a mix of art which shows some Japanese influence, as well as imagery paying homage to the classic Egyptian, Roman, Greek, and Assyrian civilizations. The images on include portraits, impressionistic paintings and drawings of horses, and a fixation on brothels.
In an essay introducing the exhibit, Johnson unpacked the contrarian collection approach he has taken over a span of four decades to obtain the rare art of a legend in the field.
“Collecting has always carried an undercurrent of one-upsmanship, social status, and investment, but in recent decades the activity has escalated into a degree of shrillness and excess that would make even the robber baron collectors of the turn of the last century blush,” wrote Johnson. “In its purest form, however, collecting is a way of attempting to understand the work of art in question, the artist who fashioned it, and in turn, oneself as the collector ponders what qualities the work possesses that make one want to own it.”
On Aug. 17, Johnson will give a lecture titled, “Chasing Degas: My Four Decades Collecting this Artist and his Circle.”
Though celebrated for his role in spearheading impressionism, Siddons called Degas a “person of his time,” influenced by the world around him in mid-19th century France. This included art and a worldview that some have described as misogynistic. And toward the latter part of the 19th century, he also conveyed a strong sense of anti-Semitism in both public life and in his art.
“He was from an aristocratic family and he was coming from a context where people had very prescribed social roles,” Siddons said. “I think that he had this kind of strange combination of conservatism and really radical openness, because he didn’t have models. And so his responses to people are really unexpected.”
Beyond Degas, the new exhibit also features a long wall of paintings and drawings of area K-12 school students, who completed projects inspired by Degas’ impressionism.
Open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m., admission to the Center for the Arts is $12 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. The Degas exhibit is on display until Sept. 15.
A book by the namesake of the exhibit, published in 2012 and cataloguing all of the work on display, is available for check out at the University of San Diego.
Photo Caption: Four Dancers by Edgar Degas- oil on canvas c. 1899- this was shot on 7-31-07 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. File photo.