Two Dozen Dancers: Representing a Masterpiece

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The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, sets its Little Dancer Aged Fourteen at the end of the second-floor hallway above its Fenway entrance. With her Egyptian-god stance and silk tutu triple-framed in intervening doorways, she functions as a road sign. Visitors follow her gaze into the wide, storm cloud–colored room that houses the museum’s impressionist collection: Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Manet, and Rodin, a predictable assembly of the most recognizable names for casual art-lovers.

A unique blend of textiles and bronze, Dancer is an institution within the institution. The statue exists as a tangible manifestation of aesthetic scandal that allows juicy—but unconfirmed—stories for the bottom of museum placards. Rotting tutu and shiny silk hair ribbon, it looks like nothing else … except the twenty-odd other posthumous “Degas” Dancers scattered around the world.

Unlike Rodin’s twenty-eight Dante-inspired Thinkers, the Dancer is a modern interpretation of the original. Degas never saw the iconic masterpiece that so many museum visitors have come to know so well. That’s not a secret, but most museums mark these reproductions as a genuine relic of the time and place in which art took another step toward the modern. Viewers are led to believe—implication upon implication, through layers of marketing and facsimile—that Degas’s hands tied the prettily silk bow. Does it really matter that this isn’t true?

 

In 1881, at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition Paris, Degas displayed a new piece titled Little Dancer at Aged Fourteen, where it spurred condemnation for its embrasure of a realist aesthetic that many commenters considered vulgar. At that exhibition the Dancer appeared, according to reports, with a wig of real hair, linen slippers, a cheap tutu, and the tense realism of (according to Degas) an anthropological specimen. It was “the first truly modern attempt at sculpture I know,” wrote the famously erudite Joris-Karl Huysmans; “the leading expression of a new art,” said writer Nina de Villard. Ridiculed as a hideous foray into obscene realism, some may have found Degas’s dancer a “leading expression of a new art,” but the piece was not unanimously beloved.

These are popular pieces of the mythology: the irony of contemporary backlash, the sterling pull quotes from a visionary few. But of this initial, 1881 Dancer, revolutionary as a lone vanguard in “a new art,” the original appearance remains only in the scholarly, storied accounts. “Murky” is a favorite word among articles speculating on the statue’s original appearance.

 

That unloved, elaborate, 1881 Dancer no longer exists. After making her debut at the Exhibition, there is “substantial evidence,” according to Degas scholar Gregory Hedberg, that the Dancer lost her scandalous original form to revision.

Reworking “finished” and exhibited artworks was not at all an unusual practice for the artist. Degas believed he would be able to sell the statue to a wealthy American—for no small sum—but the wax had darkened substantially. Unhappy with the deteriorated wax, he suggested a bronze instead as a solution, which was presumably possible, suggests Hedberg, because what is now called the Valsuani plaster already existed to cast that figure. That plaster—rediscovered in a Paris foundry in 2006—remains the sole record of Degas’s radical Sixth Exhibition sculpture.

But the buyer was only interested in purchasing the original, not a bronze reproduction, so the beeswax Dancer returned to Degas’s studio in 1903 for repairs. Nina de Villard’s attentive commentary in 1881 reveals that the Dancer underwent a definite transformation. The iconic pose changed. The leggings, bodice, and skirt changed. The ribbons changed. Mary Cassatt reported to the potential buyer, upon seeing the revised statue in 1919: “Statue Bad Condition.” The buyer declined to purchase the revised wax sculpture.

Degas died in 1917. His revised statue still wasn’t selling. Then in 1921, following a fierce competition among Degas’s heirs over their inheritance, two foundries made plasters of an apparently, says Hedberg, less-detailed version of the unsellable wax. Nearly all the extant bronzes of the Dancer, two dozen of them, are products of one of those Hébrard plasters. The plasters now reside in the Joslyn Museum, while the revised wax rendition rests in Washington’s National Gallery.

The cheap coutil tutu, carefully documented by de Villard in 1881, became bright, fine fabric, varying at the discretion of the museums where the bronzes arrived. Ribbons at her waist and throat vanished; her wig of human hair transformed, simplified. Veils of time, revision, and unpredictable material choices separate Dancer from Degas’s craftsmanship. The Hébrard Foundry sent out its troupe of bronze Dancers in knee-length, thin skirts; those skirts were preserved as part of the “original” statue, or replaced, like the Boston MFA’s, with a more recent one, when the 1920s version became too frail to travel to other exhibitions.

The Valsuani plaster offers only a potential—and much debated—link between the artist and the sculpture. Hedberg, in a lonely, hopeful account, is one of the few scholars to assert that the Valsuani plaster was Degas’s own work. Technical studies of the National Gallery’s wax reveal that the transformations in the pose, at least as Hedberg describes them, are unlikely. The controversy around the Valsuani plasters swirled for years without drawing to a definitive conclusion. The plaster may be a surviving record of a Dancer more like the one displayed in 1881; it may also be a fraud, or a replica—merely a tangential remnant of the mythologized original.

 

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Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

 

The Dancer’s legacy has been enthusiastically documented, written about, re-trodden. The result is a kind of fragmented authenticity, bits and pieces referring, but only in fractions, to the rich debut of the 1881 sculpture.

Boston’s Dancer, for instance, wears a reproduction skirt closely modeled on a Hébrard skirt—now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection—and a ribbon modeled on a description of that on the original wax sculpture. Fragments gesturing back, as faithfully as possible, to a lost, legendary version of the masterpiece. Scholars have long debated the proper length of the skirt. Should it fall to the knee or the shin? The Joslyn dressed a cast of the Dancer in a wide, puffed tutu, beginning in 1997 or ’98, to more accurately represent the records of the original sculpture as Degas’s drawings. Richard Kendall in The Art Newspaper calls this dispute, affectionately, the “Tutu Wars.”

Is the most familiar image of the Dancer a result of trims and repairs, which gradually shortened the skirts as we see them today? No one is trying to “get away with it”: scholarship, art institutions, and a barrage of internet controversy acknowledge, repeatedly, openly, that the Dancers on display are posthumous renditions. But, still, they remain Degases, not Hébrards.

 

One cannot help return to the central question: does it matter that what we have today is a stand-in for the masterwork? The Dancer is a symbol. The more than two-dozen Dancers are as much memorials to Degas and his legacy as they are hints at what his original might have looked like.

Carolyn Kosmeyer describes artworks that stand as “memorials” to their moment of creation, vehicles of “transitivity that [conduct] the past into the present.” Art’s function as a kind of holy relic “momentarily bridges” the gap in time, connecting the artist’s presence/touch with the viewer’s experience. Korsmeyer calls this connecting thread “[g]enuineness,” an aspect of the work that “is an aesthetic property that delivers an experience of its own” through contact or pseudo-contact via proximity with objects that have “received the touch of its maker.”

For the viewer, the artist is what’s absent, and absence is what produces desire. The sense of imaginative link to genius is thoroughly pressed onto the sculpture’s mythos. Still, it was not Degas who tied the bow at the back of her head. Rather, in the case of the bronzes, it was a museum technician, replicating the legend of the original. The technician prepares a Degas that Degas himself never saw, never laid hands on.

Perhaps that despair at the lack of a link to the hand of the creator, the imaginative traveling back to a place and a moment, is a romanticizing or even reactionary impulse. So the means of production are impersonal, commercial—so? It allows for the Dancer to be all over the world.

 

The National Gallery has in its collection that original, revised beeswax statuette, as well as a slightly smaller, wax preparatory study—as well as a copper alloy cast, and a plaster cast. A sweeping, narrative progression of rendition to rendition, trails the aura of the 1881 original. It’s a technical dissection, like evidence in a courtroom: Dancer is the product of this artistic process, visible before your eyes. Consider the youngest Dancer, though, born in 1997 from the Valsuani mold: what greater claim does it have to the hand of the artist than the bronze facsimiles in the museum gift shop?

“The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” writes Walter Benjamin. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. …that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” whereas reproduction “[substitutes] a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”

There is the potential for an endless production of Dancers, just as there is the potential for modern technology to produce endless quantities of masterwork, museum-grade statues. The only difference is the use of modern production methods, a conceptual premise that asserts the idea of a replica as something inauthentic. The museum gallery houses Dancers cast from the mold, several transformations—or transmutations—from the original Dancer, hanging by a thread to the idea of the hand of the artist.

In the MFA Boston, the Little Dancer poses beside an unfinished, warm-palette portrait of a ballerina, painted by Degas. The raw, still-present evidence of the artist’s half-executed thought is juxtaposed by the ruin, the product, the replica. How has this Dancer survived as the Degas?

 

In the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a small crack on the back of the Dancer’s left arm belies the efficient bronze production processes. It’s a “flaw” common to these bronze casts: Boston’s fissure is more pronounced than that of the Met; the Harvard Museum’s flaw is still larger. Discrepancies in the gelatin mold used to make the bronzes, perhaps, account for the discrepancy. The Met’s skirt—like the Musée D’Orsay’s, like the Boston MFA’s—is poignantly frayed, tactile evidence of intervening time, linking Dancer, through the evidence of your own eyes, to the artist’s bygone time.

The visible accumulation of time, the tangible evidence of years in the rotting tutus, gives the statues something of the appearance of a ruin: a visibly aged, disintegrating, physical link to a moment in the past. As Paul Philipott describes that “ruins themselves are cultural objects with their own…emotional values and appeals to the imagination, which would be completely destroyed by an attempt to restore the ruin to its original state.” Like Alois Riegl’s concept of “age value,” Yuriko Saito describes that ruins “become an aesthetic symbol of passing time,” whose visible age implies their history of creation and disintegration.

The value of the statue relies not on its form, the aesthetic experience, or the authorship, but on the value that the visitors are prepared to ascribe to it. In technical terms it is a ruin, a lost work represented by its modern replica, like a temple with eroded pillars referencing a real but long-lost dome. Imagination links the statue to the original, as does a distinction in the means of production that generates, as a byproduct, the very concept of artistic authenticity around which the viewer’s imaginative projection coheres.

If the visitor allows her mind to slip into pure artistic enjoyment, there is, again, nothing lost. Dancer is an artwork, nothing more, nothing less—that is, outside of the institutional definition of masterpiece. It arises from a truly original, a truly shocking work. In that way, it is important. And it is worth appreciating as such; a gentle stretch of the imagination, back through time and variation. The statue is a masterpiece that falls entirely under the prerogative of the viewer.

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About Alison Lanier

Alison Lanier is an editor at Critical Flame. A Boston-based writer and graduate of Wellesley College, her writing has appeared in Atticus Review, Burningword, and Origins, as well as in Counterpoint Magazine and The Wellesley Review, where she also served as editor.