In the big city, for art lovers, Thanksgiving holiday is a time to visit a museum. I learned of this tradition while living in NYC. Of course, I thought that any day off from work was an occasion to take in a gallery or two. When Emily arrived to spend Thanksgiving with us, after lunch, we headed off to the museum. Thanksgiving eating usually brings to mind a big turkey and stuffing meal, with more servings that you could or should consume. After picking Emily up at BWI, we headed in to Washington for lunch at our favorite tapas restaurant, Jaleo’s. If you are not familiar with Spanish tapas meals, think of ordering several appetizers, sangria, adding crispy bread with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. After cleaning off the plates, family style, order some more, and repeat until you have had enough, with room for desert (flan, sorbet, and rice pudding). Then, find an art gallery to wander about in.
We headed to the Phillips Collection, one of the private collections from the early 20th century, housed in a remodeled mansion between Dupont Circle and Georgetown. Keep in mind that parking in the big city can be tricky, especially knowing that Washington is balancing it’s budget on parking tickets with emphasis on out-of-state vehicles. Good thing that I used to live and park in NCY (can you slip a dollar bill between those bumpers?)
The current exhibit at the Phillips Collection highlights a recently restored painting of Degas’ Dancers at the Bar. To give the context for this finished product, the Phillips Collection has brought together many sketches and paintings from the ballet by Degas. Some of these are preliminary studies for this painting, others are studies of dancers in difference stages of preparation, rehearsal, lining up behind the curtain, and taking the ovation after the dance. There are even a few naughty-bit nudes after-the-bath (what was Degas doing in the tub room?)
NPR had a review of the exhibit a few weeks ago, in which they explained that at the time during which Degas was painting, performance companies had a tradition of allowing wealthy patrons to attend rehearsals, including backstage (no mention of the tub room stuff). This allowed Degas extensive sketches in this setting, which allowed him create his impressions of the dancers.
Dancers at the Bar presents two dancers stretching at a bar against a wall or mirror. The background is ambiguous, in that it is a field of orange with little clear reflection. However, in several of the other paintings of the rehearsal space, it is evident that the light comes from floor to ceiling windows. I could envision that the orange color reflected in the mirror being the sunset through the windows as the dancers prepare for the evening production.
Both dancers face away from the viewer, oblivious of us as they prepare. Both stand on one foot with the other drawn up over the bar. The closer dancer leans over with an outstretched arm forming a series of stacked triangles with her legs, tutu, torso and arms. The other stand erect with one arm behind her back and her outstretched leg at an odd rotation. In the NPR report, they interviewed a ballet dancer who reported that this position is inaccurate and physiologically impossible. Whew! I thought that looked painful. In contrast to the orange tones on the wall, the yellow of the floor, and mixture of these for the dancer’s flesh, is the powder blue of their dresses. While so familiar in our consciousness after a hundred years of viewing, these colors should scream at each other. But, what I see is the foreshadowing of the colors of the Fauvist and the lines of the Cubists. Art is a reaction to the prior era and preparation for the next era.
Many of the museums in Washington, D.C., for all the wonderful art they contain, are like the Thanksgiving buffet: you are saturated before you have finished what is on your plate. The Phillips Collection is more like a tapa restaurant: many small rooms of rich dishes that you can sample and still have desert.