Flickhead
After Hours
with Richard Armstrong

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Au Café by Edgar Degas

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At the Gallery

By Richard Armstrong

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    There is a little painting by Edgar Degas at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which, from time to time, I like to look at. It is an oil of two young women sitting at a café table. While the woman on the left sits pensively with her head slightly to one side looking down at the table, the woman on the right, and half out of frame, is leaning over as though about to say something. What is most powerful to me about the painting, simply entitled Au Café (At the Café, c. 1875-1877), is what might be described as its aural dimension. Once you have seen it and studied it, surrounded in this room by the pastoral and bucolic relics of Impressionism, Degas’s canvas, modestly situated in a far corner, could almost be about to speak. It is as though there is a presence in the room…the lost communicant of some forgotten séance conducted long ago, a girl whose voice you cannot yet hear, whilst knowing that she is longing to be heard, like a desire which rejoices in its imminent satisfaction.

    Of all the French art of that period, there is something uniquely cinematic about Degas. His unusual cropping and perspectives, the negative space, characters caught in odd or unbecoming attitudes, suggest the influence of photography, the hastily taken snapshot long before its time. Photography emerged in the mid-19th century and Degas, like many educated men of his generation, was keenly interested in the new medium. Yet Degas’s captured moment figures a very different photographic era than that anticipated at the time. Far from the stiff and starched portraits of the medium’s infancy, with their laborious setting-up and a fastidious commemorative mise-en-scène, Au Café was ‘taken’ on the hoof, an Instamatic moment ninety or more years before the Instamatic came onto the market.

    For art historian Charles Stuckey, what is ‘impressionist’ about Degas’s work is precisely this embodiment of the distracted glance of the passer-by, at a café, at the ballet, in the Place de la Concorde (1875). I am reminded of the ‘smearing’ effect of that shot in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) as someone scans the opera crowd before them, a trace perhaps of Degas’s legacy in modern cinema. Or in an admittedly very different time and place, the arresting cut, cut, cut of Oliver Stone’s montages, in JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), resonating in the mind as impressionistic flourishes teetering on the brink of art and history. For Phoebe Pool, “Degas’s […] rapid line and uncluttered pictures are the counterpart of his own swift, epigrammatic wit. To a considerable extent their economy and directness were adopted by the Impressionists who ceased to include small details in their pictures just as they ceased to labor for a high finish.”

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Above, Manet Listening to His Wife by Degas

Below, Elsa Zylberstein and Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long

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    Even the titles of Degas’s quotidian moments — At the Milliner’s (1885), Manet Listening to his Wife (1868-1869), Café-Concert (1875-1877) — seem reminiscent of the hastily-coined, simple and matter-of-fact titles of the Lumière ‘actualités’ a few years later — Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896), Baby’s Feeding Time (1895), The Waterer Watered (1895), or of some Renoirs — Boudu Saved from Drowning (1935), A Day in the Country (1936/1946). In Manet Listening to His Wife, M Manet lounges on a canapé while Mme Manet, half in the frame, half out of the frame, plays the piano. As with the ‘missing’ voice in Au Café, it is as though we are left to ‘hear’ the sound of her playing. The sense in both paintings that the image hails, or ‘expects’ the sound recalls a silent era cinema in which sound was always ‘present’ to the spectator, yet technically absent from the artwork. Whilst perhaps themselves impressionistic, such cinematic parallels as I am suggesting seem conjured up by Au Café with a strong sense of aesthetic and historical purpose, voices off perhaps, as yet unbidden and unheard.

    At the time, critic Edmond Duranty echoed his contemporaries’ perception of Degas, describing him as “the inventor of social chiaroscuro.” The sense of chiaroscuro, of a strange exchange between light and dark, black and white, hope and despair, permeates Au Café. While the woman on the right has a lively complexion and is dressed in bright colors, her friend is dressed in black and her complexion is pallid, grey, even death-like. The dynamic between the two women in Au Café recalls that between the anxious Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) in I’ve Loved You So Long (2007) urging her pale grief-stricken sister Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) to “Talk to me…” Interested only in the rapport between these figures, Degas characterizes the table top as, well, nothing, indistinct blurs on a white tablecloth, a misty fog on a wintry field. Meanwhile, the ‘friend,’ a sister perhaps, is only half in the picture, as though within her presence, as within us all, there will always be the capacity for absence, for non-existence, for death. Is her pensive friend in mourning, we may ask? Who has she lost? How long ago…? But this is only one aspect of the mystery, for in Au Café we are in the presence of a double enigma; while the woman entreats her friend to speak, we will always await the voice in the corner of the room.

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Copyright © 2011 by Richard Armstrong