Degas' 'Little Dancer' is still on the point of controversy An exhibit at the BMA explores the famous tutu-clad sculpture, variously described as ancient and modern, an example of depravity or the epitome of a classical dancer


October 11, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

To some, she is a masterpiece, extraordinarily modern yet reminiscent of ancient statuary. To others, she is an example of depravity, of criminality, of the ills of society.

Perhaps never in the course of art history have so many seen so much in a single work of art. Even today debate continues, and to meet her is to know why.

She is, of course, Edgar Degas' sculpture called "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," and the Baltimore Museum of Art currently has on view the first exhibit devoted to an exploration of the work. This show contains more than 60 works by Degas, including paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures. They all reflect the artist's fascination with dancers and the dance, and so provide a setting and context for the exhibit's singular centerpiece.

She's certainly one of the best-known works of modern art, still remarkable for the unusual combination of bronze and textiles. Today she's a young ballet dancer, slightly more than 3 feet tall, wearing a fabric tutu and a real ribbon in her hair. But she began life somewhat differently.

She first appeared, along with other Degas works, in an 1881 Paris exhibit of impressionist art. The artist had been working on her since the late 1870s, using as his model a young dancer at the Paris opera named Marie van Goethem. The original sculpture was of wax and dressed more elaborately than current versions, with a hair wig and a ribbon, bodice, tutu and ballet shoes all of fabric. (The original, now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon in Virginia, never travels due to fragility.)

It was only after Degas' death in 1917 that the "Little Dancer" was cast in bronze, with added fabric tutu and hair ribbon, and 28 of the bronzes exist in public and private collections, including the BMA.

The debut of the "Little Dancer" produced great controversy. "Almost thirty responses to the 'Little Dancer' from Degas' lifetime can now be assembled," show curator Richard Kendall writes in the catalog.

Among positive reactions from critics covering art in Paris, Paul de Charry singled out its "extraordinary reality" and called it "a real masterpiece." Joris-Karl Huysmans called it "the first truly modern attempt at sculpture I know," while to Nina de Villard it was "the leading expression of a new art."

Others compared it to art from earlier ages: Gothic sculpture, medieval Spanish sculpture, Egyptian sculpture. Collector Louisine Havemeyer, calling it both classic and modern, referred to it as "One of the greatest works of art since the dynasties of the Nile." Comparisons with older art may have been made partly because it was exhibited in a glass case, like classical sculpture in the Louvre, and was dressed in wig and clothes. Egyptian sculptures were often shown wearing wigs, Gothic and Spanish sculptures were draped with real fabric.

On the negative side, reviewer Louis Enault called the sculpture "quite simply hideous," and added, "Never has the misfortune of adolescence been more sadly represented." An anonymous critic, writing in an English journal, said the sculpture depicted a "semi-idiot" and added, "Can art descend lower?"

Because of the wax medium and the clothes, some compared the dancer to Madame Tussaud's waxworks, to puppets, dolls, dressmakers' mannequins. One critic, Elie de Mont, compared the dancer to a monkey. Another, Paul Mantz, referred to her as a "flower of precocious depravity," with a "face marked by the hateful promise of every vice" and "bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character."

Such violent reactions originated in issues of the time. The dancers of the Paris opera often came from the lower classes (Marie van Goethem was the daughter of a tailor and a laundress), were sought after as sexual partners by rich dandies, and frequently became prostitutes. So the "Little Dancer" could be seen as someone destined for a life of depravity.

Some thought her Degas' indictment of a society that winked at the practices that went on at the opera and thereby weakened the nation's moral fiber.

Further, according to "scientific" theory of the day, people's facial and cranial features could reveal a genetic tendency toward the criminal. The "Little Dancer," with her slightly raised head, was thought to show some of those features, such as a prominent nose and mouth and low or receding forehead. And the fact that Degas exhibited pastel portraits of young murderers with similar features in the same show with the "Little Dancer" only underscored the point.

Such theories are long-since discredited, but lively discussion still goes on about how the "Little Dancer" should be interpreted and what Degas intended to show.

Two speakers at an Oct. 3 BMA symposium on the "Little Dancer" provided a case in point.

Jill DeVonyar-Zansky, a curator and dance instructor, argued that the sculpture's pose reveals the physical qualities a good dancer needs.

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