The Musée d’Orsay is celebrating the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas on 27 September 1917 through the words of a poet. This exhibition takes its title from the remarkable but neglected work by writer and philosopher Paul Valéry (1871-1945), who is himself unfairly overlooked today, and uses his finely-honed words to initiate a dialogue with the works of Degas.
This major text, informed by a friendship between the two men spanning twenty years, has a distinctive depth and poetry and is undoubtedly one of the richest and most sensitive accounts of Degas. With its fragmented non-biographical structure, and intimate yet universal tone,Degas Danse Drawingn ultimately paints a dual portrait – of the artist, whom Valéry describes with a freedom born of a very close relationship, and of the genius. The work is also a meditation on the creative process. Dipping into the text in the exhibition spaces and reading the images crafted by the writer allows the beauty of his words to provide an insight into the magical artworks.
In the exhibition, the draughtsman’s line, which the Musée d’Orsay’s outstanding graphics collection reflects in all its variety, intersects with lines of thought. The movement of forms, which interested Degas throughout his life, and the movement of ideas to which Valéry devoted himself, are revealed. The exhibition therefore explores encounters: between a young man new to Paris whose poetry precedes him and an acerbic elderly man averse to scribblers, who were introduced by a mutual circle of acquaintances including Stéphane Mallarmé, his friends, and Julie Manet, daughter of Berthe Morisot. This in turn facilitates an encounter between literature and the art of drawing which was encapsulated in a book, and just as the author suggested, on this anniversary it is moving to peruse “following your whim, this handful of studies by Edgar Degas”.