Our lives are brief tragic beautiful and surrounded by mystery. Black marks on a white ground – that is all these words would be but for you they are building a bridge across time and space, following the thought of other minds. (1)
Black marks on a white ground, can they really build bridges? We read books the weather other people read too much into a gesture a look read the potential danger of a situation read it all wrong. Clarity understanding but what of the quality of understanding has that is that as dense in meaning as the pace the ebb and flow of words across the page a rhythm so lyrical quick quick slow quick quick slow a dancing rhythm the pace of breath to breathe swallow words whole digest. How much of language uses the body? Can you envision a world without words to define it?
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan explores all of that.
The Brief, “Between 1878 and 1881, Edgar Degas drew, painted, and sculpted Marie in numerous artworks, most famously in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, (a wax sculpture half-life size so about thirty inches would be my guess, it always interests me how often measurements are omitted when talking about art) which appears at the sixth exposition of independent artists in 1881 alongside Degas pastels of convicted criminals…
The Tragic, “Critics lauded Little Dancer as “the only truly modern attempt at sculpture, “and saw a street urchin, in her face clearly “imprinted with the promise of every vice”.
Hundreds of young girls lived this life, half-starved because of poverty, exploited and marginalized in a world that saw what? Not who they were or what the effort cost them, nor did they think of how few alternatives their lives offered them. Marie was fortunate, her mother was a laundress, and she had an older sister Antoinette and a younger sister Charlotte who according to the book history did make something of herself in the ballet.
The Beautiful, Degas was forty six when Marie modeled for him. Thirty seven years later, the wax/fabric/hair sculpture was still in his studio. It was only after his death that his heirs “arranged to cast the twenty-eight bronze repetitions”.
The Mystery, Her name was Marie van Goetham. What was Degas trying to capture in that wax figure of a fourteen year old girl and why did he chose to use real fabric for the skirt and real hair for her head? If it was me we were talking about, it would be because it was the most expedient route to capture what he was thinking. Oh and why did he never have it cast? A mystery.
(1) The College Survey of English Literature the Introduction to William Cowper 1731-1800
Talking about size, the Tundra Swan painting is approximately thirty inches by forty four inches. It was an attempt to explore their communal dance, a language which I find fascinating.