Thus was music described by the great Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. I have stretched the metaphor a little to include the work of the impressionists – or at least the honorary impressionist Edgar Degas – although I suspect Tchaikovsky would have stared blankly at his work and turned away. The visual arts did not really register for Peter Ilich – he was surely only ever about the music.
I begin with a review of Degas and Cassatt: The Dance of Solitude Salva Rubio (Europe Comics). Artist and colorist EFA
In 1873 at the Café de la Nouvelle Athenas the artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) invites a friend – a Ms Cassatt – to a special meeting. She is not comfortable. She tells him:
‘A café, Monsieur Degas, is not an appropriate place for a lady.’ Which doubtless it is not.
‘Relax,’ he tells her, in unlikely 19th century parlance.
Ms Cassatt asks why she has been invited. Degas replies it is because a very interesting meeting is about to begin.
This, history will record, is somewhat of an understatement. Monsieur Degas’ ‘special meeting’ gave birth to a Society which included amongst others, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro. Seeking freedom away from the restrictive judgement and gatekeeping of the Paris Salon, The Société Anonyme des Artistes was born. April 15th 1874 at the Boulevard des Capucines.
The new Society exhibited some 165 paintings by 30 artists. But instead of bursting onto the scene as a readymade movement overturning all previous conceptions abourt art and sculpture, the exhibition was received by a public and critical yawn. At this stage (despite strong requests from Degas, Edouard Manet was refusing to join the group) a journalist from the satirical magazine Charivari called the rebels ‘the impressionists’.
Degas did exhibit with the impressionists – they gave eight exhibitions in all and his work was present at all but one – but he fell out with the others and was too fond of the idea of being recognised and receiving medals to be entirely a rebel: ultimately he succeeded in his aims, being awarded medals from the Salon and the Legion D’Honneur.
Unless reading Bunty and Diana comics count, this is my first graphic novel ever. I was intrigued by the subject matter. I’m always up for a lives of the Artists book, and why not talk and write about the life of a great artist using drawings as well as words? It makes perfect sense. The difficulty with this is, however well it is written and or drawn the original copy might be, the digital version is hard to read because of poor production values. Or something! I am not enough of an expert to know. I only know that I am reading my copy In black and white I am reading my copy on a reMarkable which has quite a large screen, larger than an ipad, a kindle, and certainly larger than a phone, but I’m still struggling.
I don’t struggle with the themes, characterisation or ideas but the script is broken because it’s a graphic novel seemingly in odd places. More for reasons of space, than flow or dialogue. It all feels a bit plodding.
In this style of novel there is no room for linking narrative.
“Ah Mrs Cassatt. As a young man in Florence I realised…”
“that sadness is the fate reserved for those who devote their lives to art.”
While Mrs. Cassatt, an artist in her own right, unsurprisingly has laid her own work aside to help him. She gives us this aside:
“Truth to tell I awaited something else from Degas besides Chivalry.”
“We’d known each other for years, I thought that these days and nights might finally lead to something.”
Is this true? I don’t even know. Certainly Degas was reputed to be overly fond of some of the young dancers he loved to paint. But I do not think I shall be able to finish the book because I’m not sure my eyesight would survive it.
Thank you to NetGalley and Europe Comics for approving me for a copy of Degas & Cassatt.
When Edgar Degas was six years old (the family name was de Gas) on the other side of the world a baby named Peter was born to a family in Votkinsk a remote part of the Russian Empire. The child’s father Ilia, was a mining engineer. His Mother Alexandra. This baby was one of seven children and would become known to the world as Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). While Degas the artist craved recognition and fame, Tchaikovsky the musician shunned it.
The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, compiled and edited by Modeste Ilich Tchaikovsky, Translated by Rosa Newmarch
Although able to play and read music from the age of 5, Tchaikovsky was not trained as a musician formally until later in life. Originally he trained for the civil service, but then won a place at the nascent St. Petersburg Conservatoire from which he graduated in 1865. He was then aged 25.
In a letter to his brother Modeste, the composer wrote: (January 6th 1875)
“….I worked my nerves to pieces over my First Symphony. And even now I often gnaw my nails to the quick, smoke any number of cigarettes and pace up and down my room for long before I can evolve a particular motive or theme…. But even when we are not disposed for it we must force ourselves to work. Otherwise nothing can be accomplished.”
In a letter to his patroness N.F Von Meck he wrote: (December 5th 1877)
“Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge and comforter for whose sake life is worth living. Perhaps there will be no music in heaven. Well let us give our mortal life to it as long as it lasts.”
A disastrous and very short lived marriage caused him to have a complete nervous breakdown. Away from his beloved Russia he spent years wandering round Europe (mainly Italy) trying to work and regain his health. I have long loved Tchaikovsky’s music. He was one of my mother’s favourite composers and so I grew up with the Pathetique and Swan Lake. But who knew how beautifully he could write? And he is always homesick, a condition with which I can empathise. How horrified he would be if he could see what was happening now.
From Florence (1878)
“You amid winter snows, and I in a land where the spring is green, and my window stands open at 11pm! I look back with affection to our seasons. I love our long, hard winters. How beautiful it is. How magical is the suddenness of our spring, when it bursts upon us with its first message! I delight in the trickle of melting snow in the streets, and the sense of something life-giving and exhilarating that pervades the atmosphere!”