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Artists do it better: Judy Cotton on Degas

Posted by Sebastian Smee  November 15, 2011 11:11 AM

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10052011_05degaspicone.jpgRule of thumb: Artists - good ones, anyway - are almost always more interesting on the subject of art than art critics. Not all of them, though, can write as well as Judy Cotton, a terrific artist (and fellow Aussie) who lives with her American husband Yale Kneeland in Lyme, Connecticut.

Cotton and Kneeland came through Boston the other day to see the "Degas and the Nude" show at the MFA, and Cotton wrote about it the next day in an email she sent my way. I reprint most of what she wrote here, with her permission:

"Some of the early drawings were so earnest that it was heartrending, the... effort so palpable. He may have started out with Puvis [de Chavannes] but clearly dropped his hand early on. Having drawn the nude so many times myself I would like to say that one contorts the nude to see what the figure is capable of doing, so the contortions that other critics have made so much of seem exactly what I might have done myself. It is also true that there is no more beautiful part of human anatomy than the long line of a woman's backbone.

"So for me Degas's 'feelings about women' were irrelevant to most of the works. The nude was simply his tool, the question he was asking his paper or canvas, the instrument for using his pastels, charcoal, pencil, chalk, paint in that wonderful feathering stroke. Some of the background details were exquisite little abstracts in and of themselves.

10052011_05degas_photo3.jpg"It was clear too, that just as de Kooning used Picasso as his dictionary, so Matisse used Degas. Would we have had 'The Red Studio' without that late rose/red nude (title escapes me)? So it was a voluptuous pleasure as an artist to see such works realized so brilliantly, the line that turned just where it should, the sudden eruption of coloring or not.

"The monotypes were, I think, the beginning of a kind of true realism. One could smell the sperm to put it bluntly, and with each piece one slipped into the habits and manners of that century not turning aside from any of it.

"His personality, anti-Semitism, feelings for and about women seem irrelevant to me. These were his true pictures, not the dancers, and race horses, the ones for making money. So he was a realist when he worked with nudes in the true sense and we see that from the photograph of him toward the end.

"But what a happy shock to face Matisse's 'Carmelina' at the end, propped up by those two bold black stripes that he used so often throughout his whole career to structure his paintings.

"So I think that Degas mastered the nude, but as an artist, not as a sexual being.

"The sculptures just didn't do it for me, they seemed like the drawings rendered solid but without due cause, he didn't seem to learn anything from them the way Matisse's sculptures worked for him, or Picasso's for that matter."

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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