Degas, Edgar: La Coiffure (c1896-1900)

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The Independent Culture

It was a stirring indictment, and, in a way, quite right. If you take Paulin's words against the spirit of their feverish moralism, then they're extremely acute. Take away the puritanical body horror, take away the assumption that Degas lip-smackingly shares this body horror, take away the idea that the most revolting thing you can do to somebody is to imagine them on the lavatory, and you have a good insight here into Degas's late work.

It is just the kind of subject he might have done. It's a pity that he never got round to doing it. He would probably have done it well. His great theme is human beings struggling with their own embodiment, with the fact that they have bodies. Going to the lavatory, that strenuous bodily imperative, would be an excellent case in point. Degas is not horrified by such things. (Come to that " 'what would children think of this?' " nor are most children.) He isn't exactly turned on by them, either. His work at this stage is less about looking at bodies, more about imagining how they feel.

Degas never depicted a woman on the lavatory. He often depicted a woman 'at her toilet', to use the antique phrase. There are many images of a woman washing herself, drying herself, wiping herself " not actually wiping her bottom, but not far off, and presumably that is what inspired Paulin's thought.

The human arm is generally just long enough to reach the human bottom. Perhaps it's an evolutionary consideration. It's certainly the sort of consideration that animates Degas's images. He concentrates on the limits of the body's self-management. He shows how a woman drying herself can only just get a towel between her shoulder blades, and half-nelsons herself in the act. He shows how drying the sole of a foot can put the body's whole balance at risk. The body in these pictures is not an angelic body, an unresisting and infinitely flexible instrument of the will. It is an obstacle, an impediment. And there are Degas pictures that pick on other awkward aspects of having a body " for example, our hair.

Our head hair. It is a strange thing, head hair. Or a strange body part, and the question of whether you would call it a thing or a body part is what makes it strange. It's an inanimate stuff to which we're very intimately attached. It has no sensation itself, it is biologically dead, but when you pull it, don't you know it. Unlike body hair and animal fur, our head hair can grow to an indefinite length; and when long, it becomes a distinct entity, a lifeless extension of the living body, a reminder that we human creatures are inextricably a part of matter.

A blazing red-orange lump of the stuff is at the heart of Degas's La Coiffure (Combing the Hair). It's the climactic colour point in this scene of whites, blacks, browns, buffs, pinks. A woman is sitting on a bed. She holds her head bent over sideways so that it is lower than her shoulders. Another woman stands a little away, her own head slightly bent and her face out of sight. Between the two of them stretches the long mass of hair. They're both holding on to it, one in cagey self-protection, the other in the act of combing it.

It's true, of course, that this hair belongs to one of them, and doesn't belong to the other. But the way the picture shows it, it's more like a separate object that's being negotiated between them. The hair may be physically attached to the head of the first woman, but it seems to be attached like a thorn or splinter, some foreign body, in the process of being carefully but firmly dealt with. We're conscious, too, of how sensitively embedded it is " a piece of flaccid matter, but rooted in its owner's head. And how tenderly the sitting woman puts her hand to those roots, to regulate the painful tug of the combing. How gracefully she submits.

The head, yes, the topmost body part is where this dead stuff grows, and provides a handle for the body. There's a particular helplessness in having your hair pulled, or being pulled around by your hair, like the cartoon caveman's wife. And this woman here, having her hair combed, is bowed down by this, in her bent-right-over-sideways pose, with the line of the neck becoming continuous with the line of the shoulder. In that total head-down, she bows before the inevitable fact of her embodiment.

Marcel Proust said: 'It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognise that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.'

It is not only in moments of illness. It is every day, several times a day, when we comb our hair, when we dry our backs, when we wipe our bottoms. Those are the facts of life. I hope no children are reading this.

THE ARTIST

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) has become a problem for us these days, a happy hunting-ground for bad attitudes. Once, he was the lovable Impressionist of human action " race meetings in bright livery and blur; ballerinas on the hop in a flourish of glowing tutus; spontaneous, accidental-looking scenes. But the stress has shifted on to his voyeurism and sexism, his treatment of women as zoological specimens, the artist as bachelor-misogynist. Certainly, in Degas's work, humans are emphatically not angels, and women are the prime exhibits of his mixed feelings about human bodies. But, for making a drama out of the body itself, he is the modern Michelangelo. His small clay working-models of dancers and bathers, cast in bronze after his death, are the greatest sculptures of the 19th century.

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