Edgar Degas loved women, he adored them from head to toe. He must have. No artist other than himself has painted women so extensively with such admiration, fascination and enthusiasm. He painted women exercising sleeping, dancing and tying the laces of their slippers but what he seemingly liked to paint was the intimacy of women at her toilet. He painted his subjects with great attention to detail to the female body that his art exuded his eroticism and obsession of the female nude. Judging by his artworks Degas was more than a mere dry academic observer of the models that he painted. He was a passionate lover of them. This is evident through his use of subtle colours that convey tenderness and the gentle texture of his brushstrokes conveying sensuality. His affection and amusement towards his models seems inseparable from the way he painted them. Degas seemed to pick up on the subtleties of the women he painted and placed importance on their movements, especially dancers. He painted nude women so effortlessly that I began to wonder about his romantic life. Perhaps tapping into his sexual mind could explain his paintings. There could be a co-relation between the his romantic life and his artistic life. Could one have influenced the other?
I had always imagined Degas as a man who always had plans on a Friday night and a date on Valentine’s Day. A man who knew just how to woo his ladies with poetry, handwritten letters, ice cream with colourful sprinkles and enjoyed his Saturday evenings cooking and then taking a stroll through famous parks in Paris. A man who would set the mood with scented candles and rose petals, working his way from the couch to his bedroom with two glasses of wine. Undressing his lovers slowly, softly kissing every inch of the parts he exposed while running the back of his fingers down her lips. His sexuality most certainly had something to do with the sensual nature of the way he painted women, how could it not?
As I began to read about him I was surprised to learn that there was a contradiction between Degas’ life and his art. The man who painted some of the most sensual paintings was a bachelor whose personal life lacked intimacy. As a matter of fact Degas described himself to be “sexless” with no love life. Fellow impressionist artist Edvard Manet once described him as someone who “is incapable of loving a woman, or even telling her he does”. Degas himself interestingly said his soul was “like a worn pink satin ballet shoe”. This intrigued me even more. He had no love life but described himself as having the soul of a woman’s dancing slipper. The artist, although a man may be one in touch of with his feminine side.
One of my favourite paintings by Degas is called “After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Nape”, drawn using pastel on paper in 1898, it is housed in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. One of my favourite museums with a huge collection of Degas’ works. This painting depicts a woman who has finished her bath. She is nude and sitting on the edge of the bath tub drying the back of her neck. We cannot see her face. She has reddish hair. Her left arm is elevated and bent forward towards her head forming an “L” shape and she uses her left hand to hold her hair from falling on her face while she dries the nape of her neck with her right hand stretched behind her head. The tower in her hand is white.
The viewers eye is immediately drawn to the focal point which is the middle of the painting. It is almost a neon orange colour that Degas used to paint what appears to be the lady’s clothes. The clothes hang over the left arm rest of the single seat chair, within arms reach. From her clothes the eyes are drawn to her perfectly shaped backside. Degas paints her back with such detail highlighting it’s complexities. Her back is delicate but strong. The bather’s arm muscles are extenuated with shading while she moves to dry herself. This leads the viewer’s eyes down her back, her most expressive and poetic center. Her toned back curves down to her perfectly round bottom and then to her bare thighs. Degas depicts the bather’s body as both anatomical and sensual. Her skin is smooth and glowing after her bath while he captures her body’s movement and function in her act of drying the nape of her neck. His subject is voluptuous, a real woman with curves. The warm pastel colours that he uses create a romantic feel and his style of colouring contributes to an ambiguous sensuality while creating perfect harmony. His impressionistic style conveys a naturalism and adds balance in the painting capturing such a private moment.
In late 1870’s Degas dedicated his attention to painting nude women, depicting them in a private setting where they were alone. He painted women bathing, stepping in and out of the bath, lounging, combing their hair and thinking in isolation. Although the main subject of his paintings were mainly nude women interestingly enough nudity was not the main feature theme in his collection. In his paintings of nude women in the toilet, Degas invites the viewers into one of the most private and intimate moments with his model. He often described his style of painting as if he was “looking through a keyhole” where his subjects were undisturbed by an onlooker. In his paintings he invites the viewer into a very personal ritual as the woman begins her day. Nudity is not the main theme of the painting, it is consciousness.
In After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Nape and his other paintings it feels as if the model is almost unaware that Degas is painting her. Perhaps she knows about his presence but has forgotten as she has withdrawn into herself. After finishing her bath she proceeds to sit naturally on the edge of the bathtub and proceed to drying parts of her bodies including the nape of her neck. So enthralled in her activity that it appears that she is unaware that she is in the presence of another person. Here she is wiping the nape of her neck, she is so in tune with her body and it’s movements, so absorbed that she is unaware of what is happening around her or who is in her existential space. In his collection of women at their toilet Degas beautifully illustrates women slipping out of self-consciousness into their own world, into their own thought and emotions in some of the most intimate parts of her day. In this rather simple and honest scene of a woman drying the nape of her neck Degas puts us in touch with our own vulnerability as he seems to pay homage to everyday life. His painting unites us in our humanity and brings to light the beauty of revealing all and watching unconscious activity that are common to everybody.
Degas was in love with women who were working, studying their delicate bodies that were taking effort at performing everyday physical intimate activities at hand. This is where the sensuality of his work lies. Degas always played the objective observer, entering into unfamiliar spheres and worlds while keeping a distance from the subjects he tried to understand. He had such an observant eye when it came to women, picking up on the slightest and most important details of their bodies and movements. But still he led such a sexless life. I’m baffled. I still don’t understand how such a talented individual with such a sensual and curious mind (who probably painted dozens of women without blushing) could have led such a dull bedroom life.
I believe that his erotic mind and sexuality definitely affected his art. His mind tinted his supposed objectivity at one point of his study of women in their every day life. As an observer Degas could not have objectively captured the sensual and expressive qualities of his subjects that he painted without having connected to his subjects on an emotional level. It is impossible. Although Degas was observing his subjects at a distance trying not to get emotionally attached to them, he could not remove himself from the situation. He was an observer, a subject himself experiencing the opposite sex through study. Being an embodied man he was unconsciously expressing the way he felt about women that he studied as he painted them on canvas. Degas might not have made love to lots of women in his bedroom but it is evident from his paintings that he made love to lots of women with his eyes with every fiber of his sexual, existential and artistic being.
They say a kiss makes everything better. A kiss can make everything clearer. To be fair though, by the same token a kiss can also complicate things and make them blurry (after the fact). Perhaps make you wonder if the kiss was even a good idea. But there is one thing a kiss will always do, it will make you feel good in that moment. When you’re kissing someone you love, someone who is the object of your desire and affection a kiss will intoxicate you with happiness and courage. It’ll make you feel young, alive and invincible. It is the only moment when it feels like time is standing still. Where the hands of the clock have stopped ticking just for you. Kisses are wonderful. We long for kisses, we need them, we want them, we search for them, we wait for them, we think about them, we don’t forget them. We always remember a kiss. The first kiss, the second kiss, the kiss good morning, the kiss goodnight, the kiss on the front porch, the kiss under the moonlight, the kiss beneath the stars, the kiss at the airport and the many more after that (and after that), the kiss goodbye, the kiss that just happens when you’re playing with his hair, the kiss goodbye when you believe that you will see each other soon, the kiss hello, the kiss don’t go! the kiss on the beach, the kiss-me-here-kiss, the kiss-me-there-kiss, the kiss on the couch, the kiss in the back of seat of a taxi, the kiss because I missed you, the kiss to just kiss. There are so many kinds of kisses, each one of them memorable. And then there is the most famous kiss in the world.
Measuring 180 X 180 cm. Oil on canvas. Hanging in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna. The Kiss. In German: Der Kuss. By Austrian painter Gustav Klimt.
I walked into a dimly lit room, the wooden floors creaked disturbing the silence. I knew this was the room where my art text book would come alive right before my eyes. And it did. This painting drew a crowd and held my gaze. It captivated me, weaving me in and out of my subjective reality of my existential space and the painted reality of the subjects before me. I just stood there admiring it’s aesthetic qualities. The gold and silver leaf paint enhanced the painting which lacked depth and perspective in the floral mosaic. It was shimmering. Creating a perfect harmony. I was in Vienna.
The Kiss depicts a young couple locked in intimacy. Their bodies close to each other intertwined in a loving and passionate embrace. The man appears to be wearing a robe. An elaborate one decorated in the Art-Noveau Style (part of the Arts and Crafts movement). The young womyn is wearing a yellow dress that fits her like a glove. Her slender ballerina like body looks like it is wrapped in his robe as he holds her. His face is a mystery. You can only see the back of his head which is tilted, gravitated towards her lips. Her face is visible, her features are soft. She is pale in colour. Her eyes are closed and her cheeks are a rosy pink. Her right hand is wrapped around his neck, her fingers appear to be gently digging into him and her left hand is holding his right hand as his hand cups her face. She is kneeling against his body, giving herself over to him. Her legs are bare, her slender ankles raised as she curls her toes on what seems like could be the edge of a bed. The couple is ordinary. The pose is simple but there is depth in their embrace and consequently the emotions they convey are complex.
She is tightly embraced by her lover and he is embraced by her. This love is not of the unrequited kind. It is complete, eager and authentic. His body language is direct. Her body language and facial expression are curious. She hugs him with one arm around his shoulders and holds on to him with her other hand which is holding her. Gripping his hand that he positions between her shoulders and cheek, suggesting that she wants him near. Her eyes are closed. She looks like she is asleep or is in a dream like state. Her head turned away from him almost as if she doesn’t want him to kiss her. Or she is acting aloof to his kiss. Within the contradiction between her body language and facial expression, she sides with the desires of her heart and her body. She wants him. With her eyes shut. She blocks out the world, giving herself over to him and experiencing a moment of sexual Ecstasy. She’s experiencing him and he’s experiencing her. His presence makes her blush and warm. The model is not a femme fatale. She is not the seductress attempting to entice him with her charm, beauty and sexual allure. Here she is the protagonist. She is the object of his love, not his sexual appetite. He is kissing his respected beloved, his equal.
What is it about this kiss?
The Kiss captures life, euphoric pleasure and happiness. It’s delicate and sweet, sexual and spiritual. In the moment of embrace nothing matters. It exemplifies a loss of self in the other and a unique unity only lovers experience. The Kiss is universal.