Degas, Renoir and More at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Photo: Remy Scalza

A landmark exhibition of French masters is wrapping up at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  But you still have until Sept. 6 to see nearly 100 of the most world-renowned drawings of the 19th century, including works by Degas, Renoir and Manet.

It’s all part of a special exhibit called The Modern Woman, focusing on radical new ways that French artists portrayed women in the late 1800s, a period when Paris was in the thrall of the industrial revolution and traditional roles in society were breaking down.   It’s hard to overstate how exceptional this collection is:  On loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, these works have rarely been displayed before and – because many are done in fragile pencil and pastel mediums – may never be shown again.

Plus – even if you’re not an art buff – this is some juicy stuff.  Artists at the time finally turned from portraying idealizations of women – goddesses, muses and virgins – and began to show the everyday women around them: moms, sisters, peasants, prostitutes and the new rising middle class.   The settings for their work changed as well.  For the first time, subjects are shown not in regal or exalted surroundings but just going about their everyday lives: in Parisian cafes, in the intimacy of their bedrooms and dressing rooms, lounging and reading.  Even the way artists worked was changing.  Gone are the meticulously painted masterpieces – In their place are rough sketches and pastel and charcoal drawings.

Because a lot of these works don’t jump right out at you with vibrant colors or eye-grabbing compositions, it definitely helps to make use of the gallery’s self-guided audio tour.  I was lucky enough to be joined by Kimberly Phillips, who handles interpretation and learning at the VAG.   She pointed out a few of the collection’s highlights for me.  There was Auguste Rodin’s Nude Wearing a Brown Coat, for instance.  The nude figure has a long history in Western art.  But this representation – just a few lines in pencil and dashes in watercolor – is revolutionary.   Instead of a model in a classical pose, the subject is an ordinary woman slouched in a chair.  Even more radical: She is only partly undressed – wrapped in an old brown coat in a pose that, even today, feels a bit scandalous.

We worked our way past portraits of plain and ordinary women, past forbidden scenes from the boudoir – “eroticized and voyeuristic”  – and past gritty and grim images from the rapidly modernizing Paris.   Near the end of the collection is one of Degas’ most recognizable and debated works, A Cafe on Boulevard de Montmartre.   The large pastel shows a group of prostitutes seated at a Parisian cafe.   A woman in the middle of the group appears to be making an obscene gesture.   “Degas was an expert at creating images that play off people’s anxieties,” Kimberly explains.

And that’s exactly what makes the entire Modern Woman collection at the VAG so interesting.   The works may be more than a century old, but the questions raised – about social  upheaval, changes in the city, tensions between classes and the conflicted roles of women – are as valid in 21st-century Vancouver as 19th-century Paris.

For more information about The Modern Woman exhibit, check out the Vancouver Art Gallery’s website.  You can also follow on Twitter: @vanartgallery.  Just remember, the exhibit wraps up forever on Sept. 6.

Tickets for this and all other Vancouver attractions are available from our Visitor Center.

Remy Scalza

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