Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 2.7.08

Dancing Dolls
Portland Art Museum dances around Paris

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas

Down onstage at the Paris Opéra the petite, voluptuous ballerina focuses on her form and technique while up in the box seats a not-so-petite upper class man pays close attention to her body movements. Yes, he is excited for her dance onstage, but he is even more excited for what she will do later in his private residence. He is an abonné — a super-rich, polically powerful industry titan — who also happens to be an arts advocate with a fancy for dancers. Lesser men went directly to dance halls like the Moulin Rouge, where women danced the chahut, a provocative and revealing form of the cancan, and proved a bit easier on the take. An abonné would barter directly with the girls at dance halls, whereas backstage at the ballet, dancers’ mothers were often negotiating fixers, pimping out their daughters for modest sums of cash.

For Parisians, the scene at the Opéra and dance halls couldn’t be more similar and different. For the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists in the Portland Art Museum’s new major exhibition, “The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec,” the scenes were ripe for documentation and social commentary, and the resulting paintings, prints, pastels and sketches propelled the dawning of modern art.

Edgar Degas, preferring the label “realist” to Impressionist, had exclusive access to the Paris Opéra as he was himself a wealthy abonné. Degas used this access not so much for drooling over females as for gaining vantage points that only the wealthy could afford. He sketched scenes from the box seats, the orchestra pit, backstage and, seemingly, onstage. He caught dancers at rest, in mid-leap, in rehearsal, tying their shoes and, when prompted by commissions, the abonnés‘ backstage interactions with dancers. His images were of a photojournalistic variety, revealing the stagecraft of the shows, capturing the see-and-be-seen atmosphere of the opera house and, above all, rendering the expressionistic bodies of the dancers with accurate gestures. His pastel Dancers Near a Stage Flat was actually sketched in-studio with nude models. Once Degas got the proportions right, he added tutus.

Perhaps his abonné status kept Degas from passing too much judgement on his peers, but Jean-Louis Forain certainly was free from such restrictions. Little mentioned in art historical narratives of Impressionism, Forain is seeing a resurgence of interest in his work both as a contemporary of Degas and a strong voice in the modern art movement. Forain’s works in “The Dancer” exhibit show a seedier underbelly of social inequity at the bourgeoisie theaters, depicting plump, caricatured abonnés leaning heavily into the female dancers, sweet-talking them with promises of riches or other extravagances. Forain worked quickly, preferring the human interactions to the setting, and often left the canvas blank except for the subjects in bold strokes, as in his watercolor Dancer and Abonné at the Opéra. The scenes are shocking to 21st century tastes, but were a fact of life in turn of the century France. According to the exhibit’s curator, Annette Dixon, Forain was “always sympathetic to the dancer,” and his critique of the patron/pimp system in French society is refreshing and at times quite humorous and distressing.

You know what you’re getting with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographic prints. His much-reproduced Divan Japonais, Jane Avril (Jardin de Paris) and gigantic, graphic Moulin Rouge — La Goulue are heavyweight acquisitions for this exhibit, but still keep with the theme of dancers, this time as shown at dance halls and other working class haunts in Montmartre and the grands boulevards. Like Forain, he also sympathized with women, often showing them with the upper hand, as in Divan Japonais, where Jane Avril sits with her back to the leering, drunken arts critic Édouard Dujardin (hey! Some things never change!). Avril, a star performer, emanates independence and does not need to respond to the advances of men not of her choosing, especially not critics. Poorer performers, called cocottes for the dancer/prostitute gray zone they inhabited, too often escaped Toulouse-Lautrec’s focus in his prints but show up numerous times in his works in oil, of which only two are shown in “The Dancer.”

But the major draw in this exhibit is the three-dimensional Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the only sculpture piece Degas showed publicly while alive. Trucked from Virginia, this bronze and fabric piece — evocative for its relaxed, dignified pose — is a stirring example of the grace and poise dancers must master despite their often shitty work environments.

“The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec” continues at Portland Art Museum through May 11. 503-226-2811 or for timed-entry tickets.