Darker Impressions

Impressionist art is hardly a rarity in Moscow. In fact, a large part of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts' original collection was made up of French Impressionist paintings. But the new exhibition of Edgar Degas' illustrations for two books, which opened this week at the Museum of Private Collections, is something special.
"This is the first time that all of the illustrations have been exhibited together," said Anna Chudetskaya, the exhibition's curator. "This is a unique opportunity to see rare and unfamiliar works by one of the most enigmatic members of the Impressionist movement."

The Pushkin Museum's large Impressionist collection was acquired before the Revolution by the Moscow merchants Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. Degas, however, is a relative rarity in Russia. By the early 20th century, Chudetskaya explained, he had become something of a classic, and thus less of a draw for the two collectors, whose great talent lay in discovering relatively unknown or underappreciated artists.

But now, 100 years after Morozov and Shchukin, the artist and private collector Yuri Petukhov is reviving the old tradition and filling in the gaps. "Over the last few years, Petukhov has been focusing on French art, and more specifically, graphic art," Chudetskaya said. Among his recent finds are two rare volumes published by the art collector and bibliophile Ambroise Vollard, with illustrations by Degas. These two works are now being exhibited in the Gallery of Private Collections.

Degas' illustrations, which were originally included with the books in loose-leaf print portfolios, occupy the walls of an entire floor of the gallery. The books themselves, Lucian's "Dialogs of the Courtesans" and Ludovic Halevy's "The Cardinal Family," are on display in two glass cases in the center of the room.

Neither book came out during the artist's lifetime, Chudetskaya said. "The prints that serve as illustrations for 'Dialogs of the Courtesans' were not actually created for the purpose," she said. They represented Paris' seedy underworld and were shown only to a few of Degas' close friends.

"They reveal a side of Degas that most are unfamiliar with," she said. Degas' "public art" had to pass "his internal censor," and so, as long as he lived, the world remained ignorant of what she describes as his "ruthless depiction of Paris' darker side."

Even after his death, the prints were rarely seen. "Many of them were destroyed by Degas' brother in an attempt to preserve the artist's reputation, and those that survived were auctioned off and scattered among various private collectors," Chudetskaya said.

It was only in the 1930s, almost 20 years after Degas' death, that Vollard published some of the prints as illustrations to Lucian's work.

According to the exhibit's catalog, Vollard was at first unsure whether he could use Degas' depictions of modern brothels as illustrations for a classical text on the same subject. He went so far as to ask an expert on antiquity if the courtesans of Ancient Greece could have worn stockings. Apparently, the answer - that they probably did wear them, because they would have needed a place to put their earnings - was enough to overcome Vollard's initial skepticism.

The illustrations to Halevy's "The Cardinal Family" were not published during Degas' lifetime for a different reason, Chudetskaya said. Since the story is told in the first person, Degas decided to use the author's likeness in some of his illustrations. Halevy, however, was not amused at being portrayed as a member of the morally suspect world of his characters and refused to accept Degas' contribution.

But the illustrations were finally published alongside the book after Degas' death, again thanks to the efforts of Vollard. The complex process of turning Degas' monotypes, which could only be produced once, into reproducible etchings took 3 1/2 years.

"Today, the original monotypes are scattered among various museums and private collections and some are considered to be lost," Chudetskaya said. But the prints from the books that are on display provide a fascinating insight into a little-known side of Degas' work. "One of the copies was even purchased by Picasso," she said.

"The Shadows of Society" (Prostranstvo Polusveta) runs to Sept. 14 at the Museum of Private Collections, located at 10 Ulitsa Volkhonka. M. Kropotkinskaya. 203-7998. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

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