What of Degas’ Thérésas?
An excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos
It’s hard to find much agreement in contemporary art, but the value of ambiguity, or mystery, seems more or less universally celebrated. It’s democratic, letting the viewer fill in the gaps, supply his own meanings and make the work his own. How can this not be a good thing, overcoming the tyranny of intersubjective significance? But I wondered then, along with Garrett, or indeed because of Garrett, whether such mystery was partly destructive, severing the work from the public world, blunting its point. There is a pleasure one can take in privacy, in pure form. Degas’ ballerinas always come to mind for me. They are creatures with a bodily existence but hardly any interior life, though they do manage to express something deflating about debased middle-class entertainments: the ballet of the period was of course also a place of procurement for well-to-do gentlemen looking for sexual toys. But there are at least two exceptions in the Degas corpus, for two stars of the Paris Opera: Eugenie Fiocre and Rita Sangalli. Even here, the differentiation is primarily formal, not psychological. You can recognize these flesh-and-blood people in Degas’ pictures by comparing them with photos from the time, say, but I don’t know how much else you can tell about them as subjects. For Degas, they were subsumed by their various roles on stage. What, though, of his pictures of Thérésa? Perhaps they aren’t as interesting, purely poetically, as his dancers. She’s somewhat fat, really, not classically seductive. And, from today’s vantage, she’s nothing more than a picture without narrative content. No story remains permanently intelligible, and some lose their sense quicker than others. Yet even the brightest stars of the era, like Bernhardt, the subject of all those Art Nouveau posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha and Chéret, are at best almost nothing to us now. And who is Joan Crawford or Jayne Mansfield at this point? Can you recognize either? But then our twenty-first century entertainers will also be nothing for the future, and they will in all likelihood meet narrative oblivion far quicker than Bernhardt.
Still, Fiocre and Thérésa clearly meant something to the society of their time, so that even if we no longer occupy the world in which they mattered, we can certainly be drawn into it without too much trouble. Any knowledge of the mass culture of the era can open up their stories, their lives, to us. The cult of celebrity, too, a cult that has by now matured into a religion, also links us to that historical moment. The real shortcoming of the Bernhardt pictures of the era was just that they were conceived functionally by their creators, as mere advertisements for dated performances, like the flyers I’d been knocking up for museums and bands. Such ephemera struggle to speak through time. But what of Degas’ Thérésas?
You can properly scoff at Art Nouveau for its mechanistic borrowing of Japanese visual ideas, its ham-handed exoticism. These simply aren’t the most telling pictures, supposing it’s fair to demand that art tell: not that it tell truly, or virtuously, or beautifully, only that it tell something all the same. But a popular star, a Thérésa, who was, unlike international opera divas like Fiocre and Sangalli, a genuine omen of the future — that is, of the triumph of low culture, our common possession — becomes something more when put in the hands of a historical talent like Degas, my lodestar, rather than a virtuoso hack like Toulouse-Lautrec.
What resulted went beyond the merely informational or aesthetic. The master’s pictures of Belle Époque cafés wreathed in gaslight, of bawdy singers serenading patrons who are at best half-listening, are a portal to a world in embryo: our world. Compositionally these images are ingenious, having the rough-and-ready feel of throwaway snapshots, which heightens the sense that we are seeing ourselves being birthed. Here is the long inheritance of the selfie. You don’t recognize Thérésa, of course, not today, not by name or face, but it is her absolute social reality that offers you port of entry. She cannot be faked.
We did have our own celebrity portraitists. Elizabeth Payton, Kehinde Wiley, Kadir Nelson: their images had spread widely. You could see them on the covers of toilet reading like the New Yorker, or in the National Portrait Gallery, which occupied roughly the same plane of taste. Some were made with skill and verve, but hardly with the tellingness, as I would call it, of a Degas. They didn’t make a civilization available to you. These artists were Toulouse-Lautrecs and Chérets at best, probably not even that: profoundly limited in vision. So the shortcoming wasn’t in the subjects per se; it was in the artists. Degas had his own hang-ups, of course: the naturalism he spoke of, his preference for truth over beauty. For myself, I’m not sure I cared for either anymore, nor even for virtue in any ordinary sense. And, no, Daphne wasn’t Thérésa or Bernhardt, obviously, not yet and very probably not ever. Nor was Duke going to be Bo Jackson. They were more private than public and might well remain so. What mattered to me, though, was this melding of the two realms, the joining of the private with something public enough to offer access to the deeper, murkier, long-tailed narratives beneath the culture.
Future generations would have a farharder time reconstructing these two, Duke and Daphne, compared with Thérésa and Bernhardt, or even Marilyn Monroe and Elvis — people whose lives had become converted almost solely into their outward dimension, into form. But this was actually an advantage, I thought. In life as much as in art, too much exhibition tends toward an unbecoming flatness. Mystery had its rightful place; it wasn’t all alienation and isolation. What is too known, what is felt to be understood too clearly, what we too stably receive over time, invariably begins to wash out. That was Hamilton’s and Warhol’s point so long ago. But that was also why their pictures can be so visually drab, worth one look and no more. Their meanings, as with most advertising, were rapidly exhausted. Pop was an art of exhaustibility, an excess of light; it took publicity too far, at the expense of complexity and depth. While I wanted depth, it had to be knowable depth, not the black-box variety that left you all alone in the shadows with your fantasies. That was just a different kind of impoverishment. Could Duke and Daphne be the right fodder? I wondered. They were known unknowns, I suppose you could say, unknown knowables that had the kind of concrete, obscure, contingent existence we could no longer imagine for figures as overexposed and mythic as Elvis. They might well let me present our world in both its generality and its specificity.