Theme vs. Color: Degas’s La Coiffure

What is more important – the theme of an artwork, or the artistic media used to convey it? The idea or state of mind an artist wishes to communicate, or the concrete choices of composition, colors, shapes? The complex relationship between an abstract idea and its materialization in art is a fundamental question in aesthetics; it has been discussed extensively in art history. The underlying assumption of these discussions is that there is a correlation between the two: artists use different tones and shapes to convey content, emotions, beliefs etc. They employ all possible artistic vehicles to create a certain effect.

In my opinion, in La Coiffure  Degas wished to re-examine this common assumption

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French painter, sculptor, and also a photographer. A wealthy aristocrat by birth, he could engage in art without needing to attract buyers until the death of his father, after which he had to sell some paintings to cover his father’s debts. He is often associated with impressionism, though certain aspects of his work set him apart from his fellow impressionists – especially the carefully calculated composition of his paintings, and his reservation about painting outdoors. A fine draftsman, a superb portraitist, he was an artist constantly in search for a new creative path, attempting to blur the distinction between genres and mediums. It has been argued that his experience with photography shaped his choice of composition.

Degas is often described as a ‘reclusive’ person, inclined to aloofness. Though he associated with other artists and was affected by them, it was hard to maintain a friendship with him. Renoir said: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.” A rigid conservative, an avowed anti-Semite, the Dreyfus Affair even further intensified his hatred of Jews. Though utterly remote from the image of an open-minded, tolerant artist, his creative spirit was indeed unique. It reached full fruition in his late years, when he was less inclined to naturalism and more to abstraction. La Coiffure was painted between 1896-1900, and was owned by Matisse.

When I first saw the painting in the National Gallery I was stunned. The colors are so bright and vivid (though regretfully it is placed is a rather dark room); only rarely does one find such a colorful painting in a museum. Rich orange, red, some burgundy, it is overwhelming. But I also had a feeling that there was some error within the painting – like a coloring book painted without following the instructions. The same orange color was used for the dress of the young women, her hair, the back wall, the drapery, and there is even a stain of orange on her cheek. This choice, of using a similar color for close objects, is puzzling; it stands in contrast with a fundamental artistic convention – the differentiation of objects by color.

The painting, then, contains both theme and ‘media’, but they are almost unrelated. Thematically, we see a young woman, and an older one – her mother or a maid- combing the long hair of the young one. Strangely, the hair seems almost like an independent being, belonging to neither of them. I would say the painting is about femininity, about who controls the sexuality of the young woman. Degas’ fascination with women combing their hair is well known. But focusing on the colors reveals almost a different painting: everything is orange besides the older woman, the face of the young woman – and the table. The young woman’s hair blurs almost completely into the blazing orange background. From this perspective, the painting is only about the older woman. Was Degas suggesting a social message here? Perhaps about the place of servants? There is no definite answer to these questions.

The heart of this painting is its double nature. Degas differentiates almost explicitly between images and colors, between two aspects of the painting that are normally fully integrated: the huge bold orange color on the one hand, and the delicate, refined feminine hands on the other.

Degas is often described by art historians as an “objective painter”: he neither identifies with the objects of his painting nor judges them. He aims at a very precise description of reality, yet one that contains anxieties, feelings, perceptions. That could hardly be applied to this painting, which is rather different from his normal reserved style. One would have to deduce that there is an emphasized element of abstraction here. Perhaps it is not about the brushing of the hair, La Coiffure, but about the process of materializing an idea in shapes and color, about painting itself.

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