Art in the Time of Contagion

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“The Curtain, c. 1880. Edgar Degas. Courtesy National Gallery of Art.

Art is only relevant up to a certain point, isn’t it?

We are fighting an international pandemic that is collapsing global hospital systems. Cities across the country are on lockdown and food rationing is being discussed. Congress may send hard cash to millions of citizens to help cover basic living expenses.

Meanwhile, people are getting very sick and our health care system can’t handle it. I know people here in Washington who have been told by doctors to stay at home unless they think they are dying.

And here I am, ostensibly writing about a Degas exhibition at the National Gallery of Art that you can’t even see because the museum is indefinitely closed.

Mind you, so is every other museum in the city, and most in the country. So are schools and universities, theaters, libraries, restaurants, gyms, rec centers, markets —the flesh of our civilization.

I was at the National Gallery of Art on Friday, March 13, the last day it was open to the public for the foreseeable future. It was ecstatic and somber. The monumental Calder mobile floated slowly about the East Wing atrium, unbound by its scale in the absence of spectators.

In some measure, it was an exercise in preserving my own sanity. Official word on the growing pandemic was still muddled and visiting a museum was my defiant act of normalcy. It was also an assignment. I was there to see “Degas at the Opéra.”

But the reason I went on that particular day probably has something to do with the capacity for beauty to uplift me in times of darkness. And there are many beautiful and deeply felt aspects of “Degas at the Opéra” (which sadly is set to close on July 5, possibly before the museum reopens).

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) became a kind of brush-wielding Phantom of the Opera in the Paris of the 1860s. His myriad works from inside the opera house encompassed the full spectrum of its machinations. He explored the physical space as well as the players: the dancers and instructors, the musicians and the gentlemen “subscribers” — season ticket holders who were afforded backstage access, where they took advantage of the poor, young dancers.

The exhibition is laudable, but as it may never open to the public again it seems futile and self-serving to dive into its particularities. So, let’s try something different. I will relate the most beguiling historical details revealed to me in this exhibition — facts that will surely delight an appreciative audience should we ever have cocktail parties again — and try to leave you with the impression the exhibition left on me.

First, the facts.

One: While his paintings of dance rehearsals are among his most iconic works, Degas never actually saw one, as rehearsal rooms were off-limits to outsiders.

Two: Degas’s eyesight began to fail in his later years, which caused a dramatic shift in his style. Details grew coarse and the relationships between figures and backgrounds became blurred and ambiguous, which is especially evident in his late paintings of dancers onstage. Incidentally, I’ve always thought these among his greatest works.

Three: Marie van Goethem, the subject of Degas’s most famous work, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” probably met a tragic end. A year after the sculpture was exhibited in 1881, she was fired from the Opéra for repeatedly missing class, and the last known records cite her regular presence at “disreputable establishments.”

Four: Degas hated the Palais Garnier, the opera house that replaced the Salle Le Petelier in 1875. He found the Garnier extravagant and overly decorated, and instead of ever depicting it in his work he drew from his memories of the Peletier for the remainder of his career.

Degas is an artist whose deft hand can make you sick with longing. The way he expressed the glimmer and warmth of a theater, its pockets of light amidst seas of shadow, is so emotionally authentic that you can feel the vibration of the orchestra tuning and the creaking spring of felt seats.

Sadly, this is a feeling that none of us are likely to experience in the coming months. People across the world are suffering. Though the ramifications are taking a devastating toll on cultural institutions, now doesn’t seem like the right time to lament this particular misfortune. We will stay inside and hope that the beacons of our civilization still exist when it becomes safe enough to reemerge.

Artists and craftsmen are going to hurt right now, and for a while to come. In times of economic distress, the arts are the first “greater good” sacrificed; in times of recovery, they are the last resuscitated. More than half of all art galleries in Washington permanently shuttered during the 2009 financial recession. As of this moment, I already know of two that have fallen victim to the economic events set in motion by the coronavirus pandemic. More will follow.

There is no pithy little aphorism up my sleeve about art and illness, or about creative inspiration in the time of socioeconomic decline. A generation after Degas, Gustav Klimt was killed by the Spanish flu, along with many great artists of his generation and about 50 million others.

This is a moment where art must lie low while the world soldiers through a crisis. It is part of art’s life cycle. It has done this many times before. And it will be reborn.

The National Gallery of Art is closed to the public until further notice. All public events are canceled through Sunday, May 31.

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