PARIS - For the new landmark exhibit "Degas and the Nude" at Paris' revamped Musee d'Orsay, ballet fans should be advised: approach with caution.
The name Edgar Degas, for decades synonymous with Impressionist paintings of dancers, has finally been stripped of the tutu in the world's first monographic exhibition devoted to the naked female form. It's an impressive, ballet-less collection spanning some 50 years of Degas' journey: from his classical genre painting of the 19th century right up to the avant-garde movements of the 20th.
"If people think of his dancers, then they have simply not been paying attention," said co-curator George Shackelford. "Ballet, he staked out because it was more marketable - after all, artists had to live. The nude however was his constant touchstone."
The exhibit shows in his early, history-genre work such as "Young Spartans Exercising," Degas' eye for corporeal detail already marked him out.
The focus on the body overtook him from 1865, as seen in "Scene of War in the Middle Ages." It's the pivotal point in his career where he turned his back on the techniques of the French Academy toward work that gives the nude bold, unsparing attention.
The vast exhibition brings together 170 works from the museum's collection, as well as loans from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Chicago Art Institute and the New York Metropolitan Museum. Many of the pieces are so fragile they've seldom been exhibited together. Studies that flank important genre paintings such as "Interior," or "The Rape," show more starkly his moves toward Realism that then gave way to the Naturalism of the 1870s.
Many times Degas has been accused of misogyny but the exhibition might go some way in laying this to rest.
A fascinating series of explicit monographs of brothels, which the artist perhaps frequented, signaled a radical break with the idealized figures of classical nudes.
Images that were never meant for public display and virtually unknown in the artist's lifetime depict row after row of prostitutes, all idle, ungainly - and even fat.
"But these actually show he was no woman-hater," said Shackelford. "He was, in fact, a revolutionary, a standard-bearer against the perverse misogyny of idealizing women.
"He treated them like real human beings, warts-and-all. How much more pure and great is that?"
At times Degas reveals compassion, showing the loneliness of the prostitute in her alcove.
The exhibit also makes history: featuring two side-by-side works that Degas himself put together for the last ever Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. They have not been seen together since 1886.
They shed insight into the Naturalist aesthetic that Degas perfected, seen through the countless strokes of pure pastel that bring the flesh to light.
The 1890s see a distinct shift to the experimental, with piece after piece of vigorous works in charcoal and flamboyant pastel colors. He moved from the early paintings of women indoors in artificial light to a timeless landscape in his old age.
Degas was world famous by 1900, but this was mainly for his ballet images.
The show hints that his influence in representing the nude had a much deeper influence on the 20th century's artistic landscape. The final pieces in the exhibit are visual proof of that - nudes by two Degas fans that take up his style.
Their names? Matisse and Picasso.
The exhibit runs until July 1.