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Tutu wars: Wardrobe malfunctions for Degas' "Little Dancer" as institutions search for the real deal

Research reassess the dingy mini-skirt usually seen on editions of the work. Does the answer lie in Nebraska?

It is one of the most familiar sculptures of our age, yet we cannot agree what it should look like. When Degas made his “Little dancer aged fourteen” around 1880, he provoked uproar and admiration by dressing it in a “real” costume, including a miniature tutu made of muslin. After his death in 1917, more than two dozen bronzes were cast and dispersed to collections around the world, each one dressed in its own, detachable skirt. Over the years, these secondary tutus have decayed and been replaced according to the taste of the moment, resulting in a bizarre parade of the old and the very new (at least one was in pink nylon), the limp and the bouffant. But suddenly things are changing: major institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, have removed their casts of the “Little dancer” from display and commissioned new tutus, and still none of them looks alike. What exactly is happening?

The latest chapter in this curious story begins, somewhat unexpectedly, in the depths of Nebraska, at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. In February 1998, the Joslyn’s exhibition “Degas and the little dancer” featured its historically important plaster cast of the sculpture in a knee-length, billowing white skirt made for the occasion. Based on close scrutiny of the historical sources, the Omaha tutu sent shudders through the art world. Symposia were convened, articles hastily published and angry letters sent to John Schloder, the museum director. Previously, the Omaha “Little dancer” had been dressed in a brief, thigh-revealing fuzz of gauze and its local admirers were shocked. Specialists, too, scurried back to their archives, only to find that nineteenth-century ballet skirts invariably fell between knee and ankle, and that Degas’ drawings for the sculpture show his model conventionally dressed. Almost overnight, the bristling miniskirts we have come to know looked absurd and the search was on for historically sanctioned replacements.

The history of the “Little dancer” is distinctly tortuous, but may be summarised as follows. The original was modelled by Degas in brown wax, then dressed in fabric shoes, bodice, skirt and ribbons, and crowned with a hair wig. Exhibited at the Sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the startling “realism” of the sculpture attracted a barrage of response from the critics, who noted its “dress of gauze” and “real tulle petticoats”, but otherwise said little about its largely orthodox costume.

After the exhibition, the “Little dancer” spent several decades in the artist’s notoriously dusty studio, gradually deteriorating, until it was described as “blackened” at the turn of the century (one contemporary tells us that the skirt aged so rapidly that it was replaced twice during Degas’ lifetime). In 1918, the sculpture, clad in its tattered and dirty tutu, was photographed along with the rest of his effects, the only such early record of the work known.

When the first bronzes were made, a special process allowed the wax figure to survive, though its perishable accessories such as ribbons and skirt could not be directly cast. Instead, a new tutu was created for each figure, allegedly under the supervision of Degas’ niece. It was here that the crucial error occurred; looking for a prototype, those responsible turned to the damaged wax, with its frayed and diminished tutu, to produce an entire generation of misconceived microskirts that haunt us still.

Conservators and curators now find themselves in a quandary. Muslin is inherently fragile and lasts only a decade or so before becoming discoloured and brittle. Should our museums, therefore, allow their tutus to grow old, gracefully or otherwise? Should they replace them every so often, maintaining a design that, the scholarly community now agrees, bears little or no relation to Degas’ pioneering model? Or should they return to basics, attempting to reconstruct the appearance of the dressed wax as the artist himself exhibited it? If the first option seems tempting, it overlooks a crucial aspect of the sculpture’s history; namely its shocking, scandalous newness, exemplified in 1881 by the fresh materials from which it was made. Broadly speaking, the second option has been preferred over the years, offering a responsible attitude to preservation with a means of maintaining the aesthetic status quo.

A similar view has recently prevailed at the Metropolitan, whose current reconstruction is specifically based on the short, posthumous skirts provided with each of the 1920s bronze casts. Several extant tutus were examined, including an unused “replacement” at the Philadelphia Museum, but there was “no attempt to speculate on the skirt that Degas fashioned for the wax”, in the words of the museum’s curator of nineteenth-century art, Gary Tinterow.

Three features of the new Metropolitan costume are startling. First, the coarseness of the fabric, which resembles burlap, rather than muslin; second, its “natural”, linen-brown colour; and finally the presence of a dull umber, wax-like material “painted” unevenly across its surface. Mr Tinterow acknowledges that this costume is provisional, allowing time for further experimentation with fabrics and for the results of unfinished tests on pigments found on certain early skirts.

If similar issues were explored at the Musée d’Orsay, the logic behind them was quite different. Under the guidance of Anne Pingent, the museum’s enterprising curator of sculpture, the decision was taken to remake the tutu as Degas himself would have known it, but using the 1918 photographs as a principal reference. More imaginative, but also more hazardous, this approach has the virtue of bringing us closer to the authentic object, if only—regrettably, and perhaps puzzlingly—to the damaged and already forty year-old figure found in the artist’s apartment.

What the Paris tutu shows, however, is very instructive. Here we can see the multi-layered, buoyant structure of the nineteenth-century ballet skirt, the sense that it once curved outwards from the dancer’s hips and the hemline, prior to its degradation, must have reached almost to the knees.

More controversial is the application of colour, also tried in New York, but now justified by the darkness of the tutu photographed in 1918, by hints in that photograph of a glistening material on it surface and by a perceived need to integrate the tones of the new costume with the rest of the sculpture. In the Musée d’Orsay model, dyes and strokes of gum arabic were applied to fine muslin to approximate these effects, but again this begs the question: was Degas’ original, 1881 skirt (as opposed to the tired and possibly restored item seen in 1918) likely to have been coloured?

On this subject, the nineteenth-century literature is unanimous: the standard-issue tutu was plain white, with decorations and pastel hues reserved for performance outfits. Even more pointedly, one visitor to the 1881 exhibition, the critic Bertall, referred explicitly to the “Little dancer”’s “skirt of real white muslin”, where a tinted or artificially “aged” garment would certainly have drawn comment. When it was first seen by Bertall and others, the sculpture was in mint condition, with a newly made costume and without the “blackening” it acquired later. In this context, the white tutu would have appeared less discordant, but still emphatically and arrestingly modern.

Upsetting though it has been to some, many observers have now accepted that the Joslyn reconstruction, for all its imperfections, is the only one to have risen to the challenge of Degas’ 1881 masterpiece. There is still much to be learned about the fall of the fabric and the diaphanous lower edges that characterise many, but not all, the skirts Degas depicted. But, in addition to its whiteness, the Omaha tutu also remains the most plausible response to the documented length and fullness of the garments of Degas’ day. Slightly earlier replacement tutus in collections in Baltimore and Rotterdam have blazed this trail, but the Omaha model takes Degas at his word by springing the skirt outward from the waist (the wax figure is conspicuously modelled to accommodate this) and allowing it to mushroom around the figure, like a “luminous, ever-moving atmosphere”, as one writer observed of a contemporary dancer. The result is also strikingly like Degas’ extensive and detailed preparatory studies for the “Little dancer”, many of them shown in the Joslyn installation, which might reasonably be taken as authoritative guides to the sculpture’s early appearance.

A number of major museums are now actively considering a costume change for their bronzes of the “Little dancer”. Though Degas’ original wax still survives in the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, it offers little help, since the 1918 tutu was replaced (yet again) many years ago (a pattern of fine gauze impressed in the wax of one leg, however, deserves to be more widely studied). There is now an overwhelming case for open discussion and a sharing of information, following the exemplary lead of members of the Musée d’Orsay’s team in the recent issue of their house journal.*

While we can reassure ourselves that none of the current solutions needs to be definitive—Degas’ own tutu, after all, was a cheap, replaceable object—the anomalies of the current situation cry out for resolution. The drab, scantily clad figures lurking in so many galleries are a travesty of everything we know about the sculpture shown in 1881. Newly and correctly attired, the “Little dancer” is transformed from an archaeological relic into a vital, gravity-defying smack in the eye, just as it was a century ago.

*Martine Kahane et al., “Enquête sur la ‘Petite danseuse de quatorze ans’ de Degas”, La revue du Musée d’Orsay, No.7, Autumn 1998, pp.47-71. The curators at the Metropolitan Museum plan to publish an account of their activities toward the end of 1999

There can be no “original”

In the spirited defence of his controversial skirt for Degas’s “Little dancer of fourteen years”, Richard Kendall glides over a crucial point that should be foremost in the mind of anyone who attempts to make Degas’s sculpture appear as it might have been when it was first shown in Paris in 1881: the bronze casts now displayed in museums around the world differ, in very important ways, from the original wax exhibited by Degas.

As J.K. Huysmans noted in Art Moderne (1883). Degas’ wax “a de vraies, de vrais rubans, un vrai corsage, de vrais cheveux”. The bronzes, however, all of which were made after Degas’ death, were supplied only with “real” skirts and ribbons. The horsehair wig, the satin slippers, the silk corsage were only suggested in the bronzes, which display neither the variety of textures nor the extraordinarily vivid polychromy of Degas’ wax.

Thus even if it were possible to recreate precisely the skirt that Degas fashioned for his wax sculpture, it would look out of place on a bronze cast that, at best, was made to recreate the appearance of Degas’ wax not as it was seen in 1881 but as it looked upon the artists death in 1917: dirty, discoloured, dishevelled, and dismembered—the left arm still shows a nasty gash where it was reattached just above the biceps.

No doubt this was the reason why the Musée d’Orsay decided on a replacement skirt modelled on the skirt visible on the wax as it stood for the photographer in Degas’s studio shortly after his death, for this was the work of art that Hebrard was asked to reproduce.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Claire Vincent, Elena Phipps, and I decided to attempt to make a skirt for our cast—the first bronze cast to be completed—that would resemble the tutu that Hebrard supplied it with in 1921. The integrity of the bronze “ Little dancer of fourteen years” is coherent only when it is viewed as a work made in the 1920s, for in truth it is an admirable but inexact reproduction of Degas’s extraordinary wax. It remains a remarkable and startling work of art, but it reflects the decisions of a host of individuals—Albert Bartholome, Jeanne Fevre, the fondeurs and painters at Hebrard and Cie—who could only guess at Degas’ original intentions; it is frightening to recall that Mary Cassatt wrote to Jeane Fevre in June 1921 to report that Hebrard had “not yet decided how the skirt will be done—whether it will be in muslin or bronze” Unfortunately, not even a white tutu can restore the precise qualities that we all admire in Degas’s original sculpture.