Artist on Artist: Tate on Degas

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

We cannot deny the cyclical nature of trends. Fashion, hairstyles, and movies are recycled all the time, and each new iteration attempts to add to the ongoing narrative of each object. We see this in art as well – younger generations of artists often look to past masters for inspiration, some more literal than others. We see an example of artistic rehashing in Tim Tate’s 2019 sculpture She Stands with Her Sisters, a copy of Edgar Degas’ 1881 sculpture Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. In honor of Degas’ birthday today, July 19, let’s compare these two works and examine how Tate has built upon the original.

Exhibited at the sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, Degas’ Little Dancer was the only sculpture exhibited during his lifetime. It did not go well. He had made a name for himself painting stylized and colorful dancers, and while this sculpture is of a ballerina, she is not idealized like those in his more popular works. This little girl was created out of colored wax, found corset and satin slippers, and real hair. She’s in no way refined, and critics and audiences alike couldn’t believe that not only had Degas not sculpted her in noble marble but that she was an unrefined interpretation of an “Opera Rat.”

There exist 28 bronze repetitions of the Little Dancer in museum and galleries across the world, all cast after Edgar Degas’ death. Edgar Degas, French, 1834-1917. La Petite Danseus de Quatorze Ans (The Little Dancer, aged 14). Bronze repetition and mixed materials. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Unlike ballerinas today, dancers in the 19th century weren’t looked upon with favor. These young girls were often from lower, working class families who joined the Paris Opera Ballet in order to escape poverty. Not only were the dancers from a lower class than those in the audience, they were also believed to be more susceptible to moral corruption – well-to-do suitors often frequented the backstage hoping to ensnare a young dancer. Degas was aware of these perceptions, and he often represented them in his art. His dancer has an exaggeratedly low forehead and a protruding jaw, both of which were then-held beliefs of physiognomy and its description of degeneracy. However, the attitude of this girl defies her “status.” Her stance, while relaxed for Parisian ballet standards, is far from comfortable, and her expression is almost haughty. She’s not ashamed of herself and where she comes from, and she challenges the viewers who judge her.

The life of the model for Dancer adds to the perceived seediness of the sculpture. Her name was Marie van Goethem, and she was an actual dancer from the Opera Ballet. Degas frequented the ballet, and he had almost unprecedented access to the dancers for his artwork. Her own lifestyle was on par with the typical dancer: her mother was a laundress, her older sister was a prostitute (which was a legal profession in Paris at the time), and her younger sister eventually followed her to the Opera Ballet. Mysteriously, soon after the sculpture was complete, Marie disappeared. She was dismissed from the ballet after being late to rehearsal and after she left the opera house, Poof! She was gone.

Just like Marie, Little Dancer disappeared from public knowledge after the 1881 exhibition. Due to the harsh public criticism of the sculpture, Degas hid it in a closet in his studio. Little Dancer remained there the rest of his life. Strange to think that this now popular and beloved sculpture started out on such a rocky path.

Jump forward almost 140 years and we have Tate’s She Stands with Her Sisters. This contemporary sculpture is glass and mixed media, encapsulating a silver dancer within a prism that reflects only her image into infinity. The figure of the dancer itself is exactly the same as Degas’ original, but rendered in shiny silver. The only change that Tate has made to the sculpture is the knitted pink hat atop the dancer’s head. This is where Tate begins to add to the sculpture’s narrative. The hat she’s wearing is a miniature version of the “pussyhat,” made popular during the 2017 Women’s March and coming to represent feminism and strength in the following months.

Tim Tate, American, b. 1960. She Stands with her Sisters. Glass and mixed media, 2018. Courtesy of Habatat Gallery. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

By including this hat, Tate has given this dancer a power that she didn’t originally possess. It adds to her pride that’s already present in her demeanor, but she’s modernized. Additionally, she’s no longer isolated as with Degas’ piece – Tate’s signature use of reflective mirrors creates an army of dancers that reinforce her strength and connect her to the modern feminist movement.

As a result of Tate’s modern interpretation, Degas’ representation of an “Opera Rat” is incorporated into the contemporary feminist narrative. Who knows which seemingly static, well-known work of art could be brought forward into our present-day culture and narrative next.

Come visit FWMoA to see Tim Tate’s take on Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer, up through August 4th!

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