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Bronzes Schmonzes

Sometimes the making of art is as interesting as the art itself. Occasionally, as with "Degas in Bronze: The Complete Sculptures," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, it's even more interesting than the art itself.

Imagine a body of work so distinctive and unusual that a whole subculture about its making has developed. In the case of the Degas bronzes, that body of work is just 73 surviving sculptures, and the documentation surrounding them is so obsessive that it borders on the fetishistic. If it were known, say, what Degas had for breakfast on the day he worked on a particular sculpture and some scholar deemed the information germane to the work, that tidbit would no doubt be duly recorded. As it is, just enough mystery remains to make the history of the sculptures tantalizing.

It should be noted, for instance, that Edgar Degas, well known for his paintings and drawings, exhibited only a single item of sculpture during his long lifetime, which ran from 1834 to 1917. (Even so, my American Heritage Dictionary pegs him as a "French painter and sculptor.") That piece, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, is the centerpiece of the Boca Museum show, which literally puts it on a pedestal. The work was scheduled to make its public debut in 1880 at the fifth exhibition of impressionist art in Paris. But as the organizer of the current exhibition, Joseph S. Czestochowski, notes, "Degas presented only an empty case, perhaps simply because the sculpture was not ready." Instead the piece premiered the following year.

That the Little Dancer remains captivating after more than a century confirms its widely acknowledged status as a masterpiece. The artist's use of actual clothing and hair may seem old hat nowadays, but at the time it was a bold gesture, and at any rate, the sculpture's in-your-face realism is still startling. In 1881, however, it "greatly surprised viewers and critics alike," according to Czestochowski, "resulting in frequent public comments of 'vulgar' and 'low,' as well as the inevitable comparisons to the very popular waxworks at Madame Tussaud's Museum in London and the Musée Grévin in Paris."

Degas continued to sculpt in his later years. He just never again showed his sculptures in public, although in the early 1900s — "perhaps at the instigation of his close friends," Czestochowski speculates — plaster casts were made of three of his wax sculptures: Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, Spanish Dance, and Woman Rubbing Her Back with Sponge. The Little Dancer, meanwhile, went into seclusion and wasn't seen again in public until three years after the artist's death.

The comparisons to Tussaud and Grévin waxworks are telling, because the original Little Dancer was made not of bronze but of wax, which brings us to another body of lore about the Degas bronzes. All of Degas' sculptures were initially fashioned from pigmented wax and nondrying modeling clay affixed to metal armatures, augmented by additional materials such as cork, rope, sticks, and other found objects used as filler. Such substances may have afforded the artist greater malleability, but they also meant that the sculptures were extremely fragile — of the 150 or so pieces Degas took to various stages of completion, fewer than half survived more or less intact. Twenty-two editions of the surviving sculptures were cast, of which only four full sets remain; this edition in this exhibition is from a museum in São Paolo, Brazil.

Since the Degas originals were too delicate to cast directly in bronze, a more roundabout approach was required once the artist's heirs had agreed, soon after his death, that the work should be preserved in a more permanent medium. After minimal repairs — cracks were mended, minor adjustments were made — the wax and clay sculptures evolved through an elaborate process involving plaster models, thick elastic glue molds, fire-resistant cores, and molten metal, with the ultimate yield being bronze sculptures as nearly identical to the originals as possible. (The show includes wall text detailing the complicated, convoluted procedure.)

It all sounds fascinating, doesn't it? Surely such fuss is in service to an art of the very highest order. Well, yes and no. If the results were commensurate with the extraordinary time and energy expended, the Degas bronzes might seem to be all but beyond criticism.

So let me be the one churlish enough to suggest that, while the emperor may not be entirely unclothed, he's seriously underdressed. Indeed, I'll go so far as to suggest that if Degas' reputation rested solely on the sculptures that make up this show, the artist would occupy a considerably lesser place in the pantheon of modern art.

It's not that Degas wasn't attuned to the postures and movements of the bodies of both humans and animals (he was), or that he wholly lacked an understanding of and a feel for the contours of those bodies (he didn't). His output is evidence of a keen curiosity about such things — in a posted quote, the artist says, "No art is less spontaneous than my own, what I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters" — although it's a relatively meager output that's also relatively lacking in variety.

More than half the sculptures in the show feature dancers in various poses, while most of the remaining works fall into the categories of "horses" and "other," such as women bathing or otherwise engaged in their toilette. These are accompanied by a trio of busts, one of which seems (to me, anyway) to anticipate Jacques Lipchitz's famous 1920 bust of Gertrude Stein; The Masseuse, a rare sculpture of two figures; a case containing a sort of tableau of apple pickers; and a remarkable portrait of a bather in a tub. The sculptures are supplemented by a handful of Degas works on paper — a nice touch.

Lest it seem I'm being unduly harsh, consider that Degas himself clearly had significant misgivings about his work as a sculptor — or at least about how that work was interpreted. In an account of an encounter with the French journalist François Thiébault-Sisson, the artist corrected the writer's assertion that "you are as much a sculptor as a painter, more so perhaps."

"Not at all!" Degas exclaimed. "The only reason that I made wax figures of animals and humans was for my own satisfaction, not to take time off from painting or drawing, but in order to give my paintings and drawings greater expression, greater ardor, and more life. They are exercises to get me going: documentary, preparatory motions, nothing more. None of this is intended for sale."

Artists aren't always the best judges of their own work, but in this case I'll let the master have the last word: "From this day forward until my death," Degas concluded, "this will all be destroyed by itself and this will be best for my reputation."

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Michael Mills

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