Making a good impression

Degas exhibition reasserts High's penchant for impressionism

Most contemporary art lovers would not consider the paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints in Degas & America: The Early Collectors cutting edge in any respect. Au contraire. But the current show at the High Museum of Art illustrates how American art collectors were some of the world's most daring when it came to acquiring the evolving work of Edgar Degas and other French impressionists. For that reason, the exhibition works well in tandem with the museum's simultaneous showing of The Lenore and Burton Gold Collection of 20th Century Art.

Although it seems odd to think of Degas as a revolutionary, his now almost clichéd images of ballet, horseracing and women bathing were radical in their time. In Europe, modern life was not seen as appropriate artistic subject matter in the late 1800s. Degas and his peers rejected that notion, choosing to depict friends and family ("The Bellilli Family," "Portrait of Mlle. Hortense Valpincon"), informal scenes ("The Ballet Class," "The Song Rehearsal"), domestic rituals ("The Laundress Ironing," "The Morning Bath") and popular pastimes ("At the Races: The Start").

Curators Ann Dumas and David Brenneman display a wide spectrum of work collected by the Impressionists' open-minded American patrons. More than 80 works are on view, including the popular cast bronze "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years," with her gauze tutu and silk ribbon, which continues to be an irresistible draw. (A preview gala at the High created the buzz of a showbiz exhibition by bringing the young girl to life in a host of local teenage ballerinas.)

The show reveals how Degas reused a number of his favorite figures and poses, recording forms on tracing paper so he could apply them in different scenes. In a variety of mediums he exhibits an intuitive ability to capture women's unconscious seductiveness. He places the viewer in the role of voyeur, inviting contemplation of intimate, largely unobserved activities. "Women Combing Their Hair" looks at three young women on a beach stroking combs through their long hair. In "Actresses in Their Dressing Rooms," one woman holds up her tresses before a mirror, while another is glimpsed from behind as she changes costumes. And he depicts a vulnerable bather leaning to dry her hip in "Nude Woman Standing, Drying Herself."

In many ways, the show points to the significant power of one female figure in particular — Mary Cassatt. A key player in the rising status of Impressionism at the turn of the 20th century, the savvy American artist led patrons and eventually institutions to purchase Impressionist works. Cassatt's close friend Louisine Havemeyer was the first American to collect art by Degas. Havemeyer eventually bequeathed her impressive collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929. Both private collectors and museums from across the United States and Canada are represented by works in this show.

Degas & America, organized by the High Museum in collaboration with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, will travel to Minneapolis this summer. The attractive exhibition is the latest in a suite of popular shows at the High since the mid-1990s, and the third impressionist show originating at the High in the past two years.

Spokeswoman Sally Corbett notes that Art Newspaper's recent survey of exhibition attendance for the year 2000 reported Impressionist and Post-Impressionist shows as the top two draws in the world for the last three years. "Almost all American museums with the means to present Impressionist work do so with some regularity," she says.

And, of course, popular shows sell tickets and increase membership. According to Corbett, the Olympics exhibition Rings: Five Passions in World Art and the Great Forces in 20th Century Culture series, which included Picasso, Matisse, Pop Art and Norman Rockwell shows, have contributed to a rise in membership at the High from 15,000 to 40,000. The museum generated its biggest controversy to date with the artist vs. illustrator debate that came when it co-organized Norman Rockwell Pictures for the American People. Beyond that and the warmed over Pop Art show in 1998, the Atlanta institution has refrained from exposing much art inspired by contemporary culture. Last fall's Chorus of Light: Photographs From the Sir Elton John Collection was an exception that came with star power to bolster popular interest.

The truly conservative nature of the majority of the High's larger exhibitions makes contemporary art lovers long to see something more arousing — say, British collector Charles Saatchi's scandalously fun Sensation or Paul McCarthey's gross-out retrospective — take over the High. Even contemporary ethnographic studies like the hip-hop exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art or the Curves: Art of the Guitar that showed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston would be refreshing. Degas would have loved those less-refined investigations of art and life.

Degas & America: The Early Collectors continues through May 27 at the High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hours extended to 9 p.m. May 18-May 20 and May 25-27. 404-733-4436.??

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