"Little Girl in Blue Armchair," 1878, by Mary Cassatt

“Little Girl in Blue Armchair,” 1878, by Mary Cassatt

The most satisfying art shows—and this is one of them—pair beautiful, challenging, or even disturbing art with informative behind-the-scenes information, be it historical, technical, personal, or in this case, all three. Close friends for nearly 40 years, Mary Cassatt said that knowing Edgar Degas had “changed my life,” while Degas, upon first seeing Cassatt’s work, said, “…there is someone who feels as I do.” The rich material accompanying this show brings that long relationship—and the work it spawned—to life.

"Rehearsal in the Studio," 1878-79, by Edgar Degas

“Rehearsal in the Studio,” 1878-79, by Edgar Degas

Room one, “Experimentation and Exhibition,” looks at both artists’ use of unusual materials: distemper (pigment mixed with glue), metallic paint, and egg tempera, and the bold choices in paintings they hung in the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, a breakthrough show for Cassatt and a huge success for Degas.

A long-time favorite by Cassatt (National Gallery of Art), “Little Girl in Blue Armchair,” oil on canvas, 1878, was Cassatt’s first truly Impressionist painting. I love the rapid, slapdash brush-strokes of the chintz, the caught-in-time moment, as if the child has thrown herself down for a moment of deep childhood contemplation, or has just awakened from a nap. As on an endless Saturday afternoon, time seems to expand into the room. Turns out Degas may have had something to do with that. On his advice, Cassatt changed the horizontal line where the wall meets the floor to a more dynamic triangular corner. This necessitated shifting the furniture around and moving the dog—originally on the floor behind the child—to the chair opposite. This change produces a companionable symmetry between child and dog, and further opens up the space.

"Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery," 1878-80, by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery,” 1878-80, by Edgar Degas

Shown at the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, Degas’ “Rehearsal in the Studio,” egg tempera on canvas (collection of the Shelburne Museum, Vermont), 1878-79, shows his fascination with and influence by Japanese composition: the low perspective, blocks of color, and subdued palette.

Room Two is called “Le Jour et La Nuit,” which refers to a journal of experimental prints that Cassatt and Degas were to publish together, again experimenting with an unfamiliar technique of soft ground etching. Again, as in Japanese art, the two embraced imperfections and accidents as they emerged. The charming “Woman Seated in the Loge,” by Mary Cassatt, ca. 1880 (a lithograph now at the Museum of fine Arts, Boston), seems at first to be a sketch, its free and open lines appearing to have been dashed off right there in the theater. Also owned by the MFA, Boston, Degas’ crayon lithograph “At the Theater: Woman with a Fan,” has the same vivid on-the-spot quality and again shows Japanese influence in the composition. Neither image is available, sadly.

"Mary Cassatt," 1879-84, by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt,” 1879-84, by Edgar Degas

The room, “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre” gives us a multi-faceted view of the artist as Degas saw her. Demanding, curious, elegant in her person, Cassatt comes to life here.

“Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, the Etruscan Collection,” 1879-80 (soft ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching) is highly detailed and technically accomplished. An entire wall is devoted to this subject, and in viewing the various prints, sketches, oils and pastels, you sense that you’ve really seen the Mary Cassatt Degas so admired, as she moves with assurance through the Louvre’s many galleries.

“Mary Cassatt,” 1876-84, oil on canvas (National Portrait Gallery), is a penetrating portrait, one that Cassatt hung in her studio for years, but eventually tired of, and sold quietly without Degas’ knowledge. It’s not conventionally pretty, not by a long shot, but this woman looks like someone I’d like to know. I was jarred out of my communion with Cassatt by a pair of young women who approached the painting, one saying, “She looks mean.” To which the other replied, “She’s just like, you know, ‘I can’t be a part of any more of this crap.’” Well, maybe. I’ve heard that Degas was pretty hard to get along with.

"Fan Mount-Ballet Girls," 1879, by Edgar Degas

“Fan Mount-Ballet Girls,” 1879, by Edgar Degas

In the next room, “Collecting and Exchanging,” we learn that Degas collected Cassatt’s many images of the same print, indicating that he loved not only the finished product, but her process in making them. For her part, Cassatt preferred to set up sales for artist friends with wealthy Americans, but owned six of Degas’ works, small, intimate pieces such as “Fan Mount—Ballet Girls,” 1879, watercolor and gold on silk (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Part of a trade, Cassatt said this work was “…the most beautiful Edgar Degas every painted.”

"Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J)," 1883, by Mary Cassatt

“Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, by Mary Cassatt

In the luscious, “Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, oil on canvas (Maryland State Archives), Cassatt pays sly homage to her friend by posing her model in front of Degas’ fan mount.

The final room, “Beyond 1886,” explores a turning point in both the artists’ friendship and their careers. While they remained steadfast lifelong friends, the intense collaboration of their earlier years waned, with Cassatt devoting more and more time to her paintings of mothers and children. Her works became more realistic and less impressionistic—and, let’s face it, more treacley—while Degas’ work took the opposite turn.

"Forest in the Mountains," 1890, by Edgar Degas

“Forest in the Mountains,” 1890, by Edgar Degas

The brooding “Forest in the Mountains,” a Degas monotype (Museum of Modern Art), 1890, is a startlingly abstract vision, with its smear of dark red paint like dried blood, and the looming tree hinting at the hidden power of nature.

Both Degas’ and Cassatt’s love of Japanese prints endured during this period and their influence can be seen in another favorite Cassatt image, “Woman Bathing,” 1890-91, a color drypoint and aquatint (National Gallery of Art).

"Woman Bathing," 1890-91, by Mary Cassatt

“Woman Bathing,” 1890-91, by Mary Cassatt

If this sampling has whetted your appetite for more, “Degas/Cassatt,” with around 70 works on view, is up until October 5, 2014.






D.M.J. 1953-1977

D.M.J. 1953-1977

Until this past Thursday evening, I had never seen the Boston Ballet and suspected the company might be some blue-stockinged poor relation of New York’s acclaimed companies. Not so! My friend Susan and I were blown away by the quality of the dancing, the startlingly original choreography, and the inventive staging.

The program opened with “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” which was created in 2004 and set to music by three Czech composers, Dvorak, Martinu, and Janacek (the D, M, and J of the title). Choreographed by Petr Zuska, the piece opened with the haunting largo section of “New World Symphony.” Roses were suspended against a deep cobalt blue background and the dancers were positioned near large stele-like slabs. These vaguely tomb stone-like pieces (which put both Susan and me in mind of “2001, A Space Odyssey”) moved throughout the performance, allowing dancers to slide on them, sit on them, or be hidden by them. The roses—red hardly seemed a funerary choice, but more an homage to lost love or passion—appeared and disappeared throughout the

D.M.J. 1953-1977

D.M.J. 1953-1977

piece. Lyrical and beguiling, the opening section evokes love, loss, and regret.

The mood changes in the middle section—becoming frantic and furious, with dancers moving between the now upright stele with urgency, breathtaking leaps, and an astonishing jump in which a woman leaps into space, parallel to the stage, and is caught in mid-flight, arms reaching straight ahead.

D.M.J. 1953-1977

D.M.J. 1953-1977

The final section was stripped, literally, of the flowing white and soft grey costumes. Here, the stunning Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili appear in flesh-colored undergarments, sitting, rolling and collapsing on the slabs like broken puppets. In the end, Cirio greedily gathers up masses of roses, allowing them to fall to her feet, and, holding one against her haunted face, lies upon the slab as the curtain comes down.

In comparison, Balanchine’s “Rubies” seemed, after its first dazzle—a huge sparkly starburst set against the burgundy curtain—a tad musty in comparison. In its day, Balanchine’s choreography was likely sensational (the full piece, “Jewels,” premiered in 1967 and was created to showcase the history of classical dance. “Rubies” demonstrated ballet’s French foundation, “Diamonds” embodied Russia’s imperial style, and “Emeralds,” the new American version.)



Susan put it well, “Pretty, but perky.”

The final piece, “Bella Figura,” choreographed by Jiri Kylian, was a standout, although the recorded music (Lukas Foss, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Alessandro Marcello, Antonio Vivaldi, and Giuseppe Torelli) was a let-down—all wonderful music, but one missed the orchestra.

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

First seen in 1995, the piece opens with the house lights up, the dancers engaging in what appeared to be aimless warming-up on a bare, stripped down stage, in silence. As the house-lights come down and the audience quiets, the opening strains of the music seem to cause the dancers to freeze. The curtain comes down partially to frame a single male dancer to the right of the stage. Clad only in flesh-toned briefs and in an impossible shoulder stand, he writhes with the energy of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. A female dancer on the left scrabbles forward and backward, uttering a silent scream, as the black curtain embraces her, then bella2releases her to dash forward again.

The choreographer makes each movement so economical, yet so full of brimming emotion, that you’re riveted to the many small stories emerging, collapsing, and flowering again. The overarching emotion is longing—a tender yearning for love and connection, a kind of lamentation. Danced on a dramatically lit bare stage with a molten surface, much of the piece is  crisply matched to the music. Sharp arm movements, and flexed feet are balanced by sensuous hip swivels and undulating backs; marvelously inventive slides and percussive slaps climax in an extraordinary lift, in which the woman, caught by the man, falls limp in his arms and, melting onto the floor, walks, lynx-like, on all fours, with the man’s hand resting lightly on her back, as if tethering

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

her. Halfway-across the stage, they switch, he on all fours, she resting a hand on his back.

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

The appearance of a crimson-skirted, bare-chested woman is as startling as one of the male dancers crash-landing on the stage at a particularly percussive moment in the score. The duet which follows has it all: percussive hand and foot movements, off-kilter flexed feet, even a vampire bite. Soon our herky-jerky duo are banished from the stage by a majestic line of the red-skirted women, who stand, arms extended at the elbows, to catch the

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

descending curtain, then fling it over their heads. Evocative of Balinese dancers crossed with Samuri warriors, bare-chested men join the procession.  At the close of this ravishing section, two women approach the curtain, and leaning into it, swoon onto the stage repeatedly—another of the inventive uses of the curtain as prop, or as a seemingly living part of the dance. In the end, they shed their skirts, leaving them bunched at their feet as their bodies wave like sea anemones, blown this way and that by unseen currents.

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

In the final section, two couples are flanked by flaming sconces. When the haunting vocal solo ends, you can hear the muffled sound of the flames as the dance continues in silence, ending with a touching sequence in which the male dancer, his face stricken, gently moves the raised shoulder of his partner down, and she returns the gesture, as if soothing the anxiety out of the other’s body. And so it ends.

See Bella Figura here, in full: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFg8DUjEH0o