He was a little bit older and a whole lot crankier, but Degas is mostly still considered an Impressionist. Like Duke Ellington and “jazz,” Degas helped shape our conception of Impressionism, but he hated the term. Viewers get a good eyeful of Degas’s art and a full biographical account in David Bickerstaff’s Degas: Passion for Perfection, which screens Wednesday at Symphony Space, as part of the Exhibition on Screen series.
Born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, the classically-trained artist opted for the simpler, less haughty-sounding Edgar Degas. Originally, he intended to be a painter of historical scenes, but we now know him for his paintings of dancers, theater patrons, horse-racers, and the people you might find in a brothel milieu. If Game of Thrones had been around in the 1870s, he would have been the right artist to provide illustrations.
Bickerstaff’s film is not merely a high-class screen-saver. We see plenty of Degas’s art, as well as a fair measure from his contemporaries (especially Mary Cassatt), but Bickerstaff and his experts fully chronicle the artist’s life, identify his artistic inspirations, and trace his influence on other artists. They duly examine his anti-Dreyfusard anti-Semitism, without getting hopelessly sidetracked. To their credit, everyone involved with the film can see the artistic forest for the trees.
Indeed, watching Passion will give viewers a robust nutshell understanding of Degas’s significance as an artist and keen sense of the times he lived in. It is a solid documentary in all respects, unless you happen to be an ardent admirer of Toulouse-Lautrec, who is on the receiving end of less unflattering comparisons. Most of us should be able to take that in stride.
On the other hand, Passion will motivate many viewers to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, whose extraordinary collection of Degas’s work is featured throughout the film. Recommended for students and patrons of the arts, Degas: Passion for Perfection screens Wednesday afternoon (6/12) at Symphony Space.