Linking Degas and Rodin in some sort of bromance, saying they were admiring friends, as a museum director in Germany seems to suggest, comes as a surprise to this column. History indicates they met just twice. Gerhard Finckh of Von der Heydt Museum also calls these artists “giants of Impressionism” as he pitches a Degas/Rodin retrospective. Unless there’s another Degas and Rodin that this column doesn’t know about, pairing these two and then describing them as Impressionists is a stretch. In fact the only certain commonality between the two that comes to mind is that their eyesight failed in old age and they died in the same year.
Let’s review their salient differences
On the #Art of seeing, Rodin said the only principle in art is to copy what one sees. Degas said that it’s better to draw from memory and that a picture is first of all a product of the imagination. On the appreciation of nature, Ambroise Vollard, celebrated French art dealer, has written of Rodin on his knees before Nature. Meanwhile, French art critic Paul Valery has said that Degas rarely painted from nature and -- get this -- made all his landscapes indoors. On Impressionism, Rodin sought to convey emotion with his figure art rather than the optics of changing light and atmosphere found in Impressionism. Degas had zero interest in rendering such effects, and what’s more, showed an unfeeling detachment when he rendered figures.
Degas differs from Rodin the same way cold is the antithesis of hot
On expression alone, the disparity between these two artists couldn’t be plainer. Rodin exaggerated or simplified for the sake of expression while Degas favored women in their bath -- faceless and stripped of personality. Rodin said a human head is a universe. He was also big on picturing the human condition. His “Kneeling Figure,” a depiction of a body throwing itself backward while thrusting its arms forward in a beseeching gesture, is a vision of anguish and despair. In contrast, Degas “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years,” shows a cruelly unflattering image of a pubescent dance school student with a face that, to hear art critic Paul Mantz tell it, is “marked by the hateful promise of every vice” – an opinion shared by several other critics in Degas’ day.
Exhibit literature for this art show needs a re-write
So what we have here is incongruity between two artists that can’t be made congruent even if they were peers. In fact, in far-reaching ways, they can be said to be diametrically opposed to each other in toto: on their art of seeing, on their appreciation of nature, on their style of art making, and on their show of compassion (or lack of it) in their work. You have to wonder what gauge Gerhard Finckh used to put Degas and Rodin in the same room and hailed as “giants of Impression” no less.