Degas Bronzes?

By Crum, Roger J. | Art Journal, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Degas Bronzes?


Crum, Roger J., Art Journal


Karen Wilkin and Dominique Vasseur. Edgar Degas: The Many Dimensions of a Master French Impressionist. Dayton: Dayton Art Institute, 1994. 167 pp.; 37 color ills., 93 duotones. $32.00

Exhibition schedule: Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, Florida, April 2-May 15, 1994; Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, May 30-July 31, 1994; Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio, August 13-October 9, 1994

Several months before the 1988 Degas retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Patricia Failing published an article in which she noted that there is a significant misrepresentation of Edgar Degas when discussions of his sculpture are based on the widely distributed, posthumous bronze casts rather than on the artist's original wax and clay models.(1) Failing's comments on the "Degas dilemma" were well founded and served as an important buttress to the informed appraisal of Degas bronzes that Gary Tinterow published in conjunction with the Degas retrospective.(2) Tinterow's work in turn provided support for Alison Luchs in her discussion of the seventeen Degas waxes, five bronzes, and one plaster cast that Paul Mellon presented to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1985.(3) In addressing an exhibition of this material, Luchs noted that it offered "insight into the wax's production process, its subsequent history, and the important differences between Degas' original sculptures and the casts made from them."(4) Both Failing and Luchs drew considerable support for their arguments from the published opinions of John McCarty, a sculptor who has worked for the Mellon collection as a conservator of the original Degas statuettes.(5) Thanks to the contributions of Failing, Tinterow, Luchs, and McCarty to Degas studies, discussion of the bronze casts and the wax originals was taken to a new and challenging plane of inquiry.

The exhibition of Degas bronzes recently organized and circulated by the Dayton Art Institute, Edgar Degas: The May Dimensions of a Master French Impressionist, calls out for a return to the matter of Failing's article and the "Degas dilemma." In one sense, this review deals with a small exhibition that circulated to small museums in the South and Midwest; in quite another, it addresses a much wider art historical and museum audience with questions that go to the heart of ethics and responsibility in the presentation of bronze sculpture and the education of the public.

For academics, museum curators, gallery owners, and collectors, bronze sculpture has always presented a paradox with regard to questions of its relationship to the creative personality. While many sculptors have worked in bronze as their chosen material, the elaborate and often collaborative process of bronze casting has meant that the achievement of the individual is melded in the bronze with that of the group. Despite this paradox, we continue to regard the bronze work as the artistic document of a particular individual. The paradox of bronze statuary has its origins in the Italian Renaissance, when the emergence of the sculptor as a recognized and celebrated individual was tied in no small measure to the revival of the ancient form of the bronze statuette. Second only to easel pictures, bronze statuettes became notable additions to collections as much for their evidence of an artist's style, or naniera, as for the subjects represented.(6) This was true even though many Renaissance statuettes were unsigned and many were produced under collaborative circumstances with varying degrees of involvement on the part of individual sculptors. The situation was much the same with large-scale bronze statuary. While Benvenuto Cellini's account of the casting of his Perseus--however exaggerated--suggests how one sculptor's self-styled reputation was considerably invested in the casting process, other sculptors relied heavily upon studio assistants and foundry personnel.(7)

The matter of this bronze paradox continued well beyond the Renaissance.

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