Art: A Brazen Act

  • Joan Altabe

Visit the Smith College art exhibition Corot to Picasso, now on a two-year tour of American museums, and you will see a work by Edgar Degas that the artist never wanted displayed. In fact, some critics contend that the bronze sculpture attributed to him, Dancer Moving Forward, Arms Raised, Right Leg Forward, is not even his.

The sculpture will be on display at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Mu-seum in San Antonio, Texas, through January 20 and then at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., from February 16 through May 11. It was cast from a wax figure that Degas had in fact used as a study for a painting. And as the artist told critic Francois Thiebault-Sisson, the figure was intended as an exercise, not as art. “None of this is intended for sale,” Degas said to Thiebault-Sisson, adding, “Since no one will ever see these efforts, no one should think of speaking about them. After my death, all that will fall apart by itself.”

It did not. After Degas died, his heirs, defying his wishes, had 74 of his wax figures—many of which were in pieces—restored to what was fancied to be the original form. They were then cast 22 times each, etched with Degas’ signature, and sold. Dancer Moving Forward was part of that cache.

The exhibit’s catalog acknowledges Degas’ wax figures as “nothing more [than] preparatory notions.” Accordingly, wall labels in some of the participating museums state that Dancer Moving Forward was cast posthumously. But the fact that the casting was done without Degas’ permission, or that it is two generations removed from the wax original—in essence, a reproduction of a reproduction—usually is not mentioned.

Similar oversights are not unusual with Degas bronzes. Last year, two Degas bronzes were featured in a show at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Panel descriptions noted that the figures were made between 1919 and 1932. The fact that Degas died in 1917 was not.

The College Art Association, an organization endorsed by the Association of Art Museum Directors, established an ethics code for sculptural reproduction in 1974. The code states that bronzes such as the Degas pieces are not true works of the artist: “Unauthorized casts of works in the public domain cannot be looked upon as accurate presentations of the artist’s achievement.”

Some museum curators disagree. “All this is interesting to experts,” says Valerie J. Fletcher, sculpture curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., “but I think it distracts from what’s really important: whether it’s good art or not.”

Patrick Noon, curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, says it is not unusual that the Degas bronzes were created after the artist’s death, nor is it an issue for him. During a recent public television panel show on the Degas bronzes, he said, “Posthumous casting is done all the time. The issue is whether you find that troubling or not. I don’t. They were done. They’re here. In many respects, they’re very beautiful objects. If the artist is dead, he doesn’t care.”

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