Dilettante: Degas and more at the PMA

Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2012 in Culture

Dilettante: Degas and more at the PMA

Study for "Plough Horse," ca. 1860-61, graphite drawing

by Jan Brennan

PORTLAND — Robert Flynn Johnson’s magnificent obsession had a humble beginning.

In 1973 Johnson, a museum curator, bought himself an Edgar Degas print. It was tiny, just 3 by 3 and 3/8ths inches; a black-and-white monotype, the second impression. It shows two trees, “a bit slovenly and askew,” as the artist Camille Pissarro once wrote referring to Degas’ monotypes in general. But to Johnson, it was beautiful. Though not expensive, “it still took me six months to pay for it,” he writes, “but at last I owned a Degas.”

It would be the first of many. Over the next 38 years, Johnson amassed as many Degas works as he could get his hands on. And now he’s sharing his horde with visitors to the Portland Museum of Art, in a fascinating show called “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist; Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle.”

Study for "Dante and Virgil," ca. 1857-58, graphite drawing with white highlighting

“I have no illusions concerning my collection. It is an assemblage by a scholar acquired on a scholar’s income,” Johnson writes in the exhibit’s catalog. Because of his financial limitations, Johnson focused on buying up less-familiar little works that wealthier collectors passed by. Even so, it was an expensive hobby for him — for example, the black crayon study for a portrait of “Mlle Dembowska,” which he bought in 1976, cost “more than my yearly salary!,” he writes. But he was smitten, and with his curator’s eye and his museum connections, his collection grew to impressive proportions. He especially liked acquiring drawings from the early days of Degas’ career in the 1850s, many of them being exhibited now for the first time. He even managed to find eight photographs taken by Degas, who became obsessed with that medium when he was in his 60s. Johnson expanded his love of all things Degas by buying affordable works done by Degas’ friends; the exhibit includes a sketch by Toulouse-Lautrec, a self-portrait by Cezanne, and etchings by Manet and Mary Cassatt, among others. 

The Museum of Art has augmented Johnson’s trove with a few pieces from its own collection, as well as works on loan from generous friends. The result is over 100 drawings, prints, photos and sculptures by Degas and his contemporaries. The exhibit starts with a roomful of Degas works hung in roughly chronological order, followed by several rooms of his pieces interspersed with those of his friends, and ends with a wall of portraits of the artist as an old man. After such an immersion, the viewer comes away with a greater appreciation of this dedicated and complex artist.

"Mlle Dembowska," ca. 1858-59, black crayon drawing on plum-colored paper

We can see the amount of “practice, practice, practice” that Degas did in the many drawings of disembodied body parts he copied from other artists’ paintings and sculptures, often done in the Louvre, which he used as studies for his larger canvases. Degas is famous for depicting horses and jockeys, and here we see several quick sketches of horses, several to a sheet, looking almost like Stone Age cave paintings. We gain some insight into Degas’ sense of humor in the photograph “The Apotheosis of Degas”: A photograph that Degas staged and starred in, it is a parody of Ingres’ painting “The Apotheosis of Homer” and looks like a baroque sculpture atop a tomb in a Roman church. Degas plays the part of Homer, two boys in the family he was visiting on holiday are cast as grieving angels, and three Victorian ladies gamely pose as allegories. Degas was known for his biting wit, and the artworks by and of his many friends hint at the large social circle this lifelong bachelor enjoyed.

This is not your typically colorful, splashy Impressionism show; the tiny, almost ethereal sketches on yellowing paper require careful scrutiny in dim light. The Portland Museum of Art is the ideal place for this, as one can get close up and read the informative commentaries, something that would be impossible in a busier museum such as  Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. To encourage a mood of quiet contemplation, the PMA has even thoughtfully provided a distraction for patrons’ children: benches supplied with pencils, paper and sculpture models of a hand, a female head and a horse for the kiddies to draw.

If this pensive show leaves you craving color, head downstairs to the museum’s cafe area, where artworks by local students are on display as part of Youth Art Month, through April 1. The works by younger students are all energy and fun, and there are many impressive pieces from older teens. I especially liked the self-portrait by Emily Tolman, a senior at Scarborough High School, who created an unusual charcoal and pastel drawing on torn bits of newspaper, and the Impressionistic graphic drawing “Good Morning” by Wantana Theerathampitak, a senior at Wells High, showing a sleepy-faced girl in bed. Among the digital photography offerings, standouts are Tommy Truscott’s “Vitality Series #7,” a rather disturbing still life of cut and bleeding bananas, and “Tractor Wheel” by Hayley Huntress, an evocative close-up of a rusty, mud-encrusted wheel still wearing its snow chains. Truscott is a senior at Windham High, and Huntress is in the 11th grade at Lake Region.     

The student artworks are heartening, proving that despite school budget cuts and technology overload, creativity is alive and thriving among Maine’s young generation. And for those of us who can’t draw a straight line, Robert Flynn Johnson’s lifelong labor of love shows that even just appreciating art is an art in itself, and can result in its own enduring creation.

“Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist” is on view at the Portland Museum of Art through May 28. For more information contact the museum at (207) 775-6148 or visit the website at www.portlandmuseum.org.

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