|(left) Edward Degas, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, 1900.|
This is what my sketchbook typically looks like when I take it to a museum, especially if it's to write an essay later. My professor once told me that the average viewer looks at a work of art for less than seven seconds. After all, it is hard to look long at one object without doing something else, so he encouraged us to sketch.
I particularly like sketching sculptures because they are the ideal model; lifelike yet immobile. Even without any training in drawing, anyone can follow the edges of an object with your eyes while using a pen to imitate the movement of your eye.
What I realized from looking at Degas' work was that he didn't glamorize the life of a ballerina. Sure, they were beautiful, but Degas left this dancer's skin rough and imperfect. This work was criticized when it was originally displayed in the 19th century for looking unfinished. However, it was a purposeful decision to reveal metaphorically upon the closer inspection, the toil and hardship associated with leading a life of dance. The surface is rough and jagged; the medium of bronze gives a slick, oily feeling associated with sweat and labor.
Have you ever heard the phrase, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"? I am currently reading a fascinating book called The Search for the Beautiful Woman: A Cultural History of Japanese and Chinese Beauty by Cho Kyo. In the very first chapter, Cho explains that beauty is not only a cultural construct, but an impression.* When we look at a woman in particular, we take into account not only the physical attributes, but psychological ones as well - does she look virtuous? Modest? Kind? So perhaps critics were outraged that Degas selected observations from nature, upsetting expectations and illusions that ballerinas are ethereal, weightless beings.
In fact, Critical Terms for Art History by Robert S. Nelson reveals another revelation: we must avoid subjective words such as "beautiful," "boring," or "interesting" when describing art, in order to avoid ascribing history with our own opinions and values that may change over time.
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*accidental pun: Degas was an Impressionist painter