Recently I visited, twice, the Portland Art Museum’s current exhibit: The Dancers, featuring art by Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Both times I was struck by the marvel of organization that the curators had achieved.

The exhibit begins with an overview — art by the three men — and then proceeds to explore each individually, moving from Degas to Forain to Toulouse-Lautrec. Degas is first, and of course, his dancers are superb. Beside them, in the overview, Forain’s painting of a dancer seems a much lesser image, although the subject is somewhat more personalized. And Toulouse-Lautrec work seems more about shape than about a subject matter — at least in the initial exhibiting area.



Moving on through the exhibit, Degas‘s work is featured first. It’s exquisite and, at least in this exhibit, is entirely about shape and form and light and composition. While he is an acute observer of human activities and nature in other works, the art at the PAM exhibit features his ability to capture the dancers as beautiful ethereal creatures with wonderful tutus. He has almost no individuals; the dancers, while sometimes exhausted as well as sometimes fragile, are not individualized. They aren’t sexy, even when undressed.


Jean-Louis Forain was influenced by Degas, but what becomes instantly clear as one reaches the section of the exhibit that focuses on his work, he was keenly aware of social inequities. His dancers are children, at the mercy of the fat well-dressed men who prey on them. The men are portrayed as leering, towering over the smaller ballerinas. They are depicted bargaining with the mothers of the young girls; they hem them in with canes and outstretched arms; the girls (for they are all young and vulnerable) are helpless and trapped.


And Toulouse-Lautrec, although at first seeming to be mostly concerned about shapes within his paintings,(“shapes” in the art sense of the word), in this exhibit also observes individual women in their sharpest, most piercing, at the height of their power. In much of his work the men, although subjecting the women in the manner of Forain to leering observation, are put into shadow and the women, by virtue of color and light, have power:


Here are more examples of the differences: Degas. Forain. Toulouse-Lautrec.Both times as I went through the exhibit I found that I initially dismissed Forain while I was looking at Degas. Degas is all about the canvas as beauty, composition as stunning, light which makes lightness and movement. But when I was in the Forain section, I was suddenly, overwhelmingly, sickened by the fragility of the dancers and enraged at the fat rich men who bought them and sneered at them before, presumably, they took them off to have sexual intercourse. I stopped seeing the paintings and could only sink into a world of obscene wealth and human suffering. Both times I became enraged — and forgot I was looking at paintings. I have no sense of Forain’s compositions, although he does depict individual dancers. His men are simply, in my memory, horrifying slugs. Then, coming out of the rage to Toulouse-Lautrec was a great relief. His women are individuals. They have names (Jane Avril, Loie Fuller). They are not vulnerable children, but full blooded women in full command and control. And while Toulouse-Lautrec shows the leering men around such women, he never allows them the upper hand.

My point here is not just to make observations on the life of a dancer in France around the turn of the 20th century, but rather to observe how the set-up and selection of the exhibit worked to process my emotions. In this particular exhibit, after seeing Forain, Degas seemed a lightweight (although elsewhere, he deals with some of the same social conditions; and Forain turned conservative in his older years). And Toulouse-Lautrec was an enormous relief, not because of his style, but because he returned to dancers as human beings, individualized. I was lead through the exhibit by the curators to come to these positions; the art had been selected and placed to make me feel admiration, horror, and relief. It was as good as a first-class drama, a play in three acts, where I moved, not the actors.

And so, I’m thinking about how I present my own work — and how you present yours? Do you mix and match themes and styles? When you put things up in your studio and studies, do you think about leading your visitors through a series of contemplations and emotions? Do you find yourself reacting to your work as a series of dramas, through which you can lead your mind? Or are you doggedly set to have each work be something sui generis, a writing on the blank canvas of our minds?