Medicine And The Media

Obsessional art

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 08 June 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1487
  1. Ronan McIvor

    Anyone going to this exhibition expecting to see the traditionally delightful paintings of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) that we have come to know and love will be startled by the cognitive dissonance created on travelling through the six themed exhibition rooms. The carefully constructed, detailed, and narrative paintings that made up his work during the first 50 years of his life (such as Beach Scene, 1868-77, and Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879) have evolved into something simpler yet more powerful and disturbing. The sharply defined details have been replaced with aggressive use of oil and pastel, where form and colour take precedence over content. It is the later phase in his creative life, from the 1890s and 1900s, that is the focus of the exhibition.

    Each room concentrates on one of his obsessive themes, namely the nude bather, the ballet dancer, and women combing their hair. Like an early Warhol, he used tracing paper to create repetitive images in order to experiment with colour, form, and texture. Backgrounds and details are blurred. With broad strokes he created pictures that are restless and energetic and beautiful. Yet there is also something disturbing about them. In Combing the Hair the warmth of the reds and the sensuality of the theme are offset by the apparent expression of pain on the pregnant woman's face as her hair seems to get caught in the comb. In After the Bath, a woman bends awkwardly over her couch, her head an amorphous mass. The nude bathers are anatomical oddities, limbs uniting awkwardly to bodies, breasts misplaced. Faces are turned away or covered by flowing brown hair; bottoms confront the viewer; feet are unfinished. These women are anonymous and unaware that they are being watched. Sculptures show the oddly commonplace, such as a woman looking at the sole of her foot, or a masseuse caressing her mistress. They are undoubtedly sensual images, shocking in their explicitness and contemporary character.

    Was this transformation from the descriptive detail of his earlier work to the simple, repetitive nature of the later phase a natural progression of his art form or was it influenced by changing psychological factors? I suspect that Degas, with advancing years and increasing deafness and visual impairment, became more obsessional in both his art and his behaviour. He became a recluse, shunning the social life of Montmartre and the ballet, to work long and furious hours in his quiet new studio. He became an avid collector and hoarder of other painters' works, particularly Delacroix and Manet (a complementary exhibition, Degas as a Collector, runs concurrently in the main gallery). His repetitive creation of serial images, his striving for the perfect composition, his preoccupation with a handful of subjects, and his fixation with the theme of cleanliness all point to a man who was becoming more obsessional and fixed in his personality.

    The self portrait on view of an old man with a white beard and tired eyes belies this energetic recluse who was, as Pissaro has commented, “an anarchist in his art.” These paintings are striking in their modernity, and Degas's art represents a bridge between impressionism and the world beyond impressionism, for his work contains hints of things to come from artists such as Matisse and Picasso.—RONAN McIVOR, senior registrar in psychiatry, Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Trust

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