You know this one.
It’s big..it’s a whole lot bigger than you expect it to be. It’s red…yep, it’s red alright. It’s got a lot of hair, well okay the painting doesn’t have any hair but the woman in it has. It’s La Coiffure by Degas and it’s in the National Gallery. Like a lot of paintings, it’s more impressive in real life than it is in reproduction. The colour really pops out at you and the size is, for me, always a surprise; a sort of fine arts version of “I was expecting somebody taller”, only in reverse. It’s one of the ones I always make sure I see when I’m in the National Gallery, so I thought it would make a good Visupulse topic.
A woman is sitting in a chair while a woman combs her hair, given that outfit that the woman with the comb is wearing you jump to the conclusion that it’s a maid but when you think it through it could easily not be, in fact the blouse with the little bow at the neck does look a bit impractical for a working outfit. So maybe it’s a mother and daughter? But then again all those red curtains somehow suggest something a bit more opulent than a domestic scene – if you can afford all those velvet drapes then surely one could run to a maid to do the brushing? So are they just friends? What exactly is going on here. Obviously it’s not a real scene, it’s posed, Degas didn’t dash into somebody’s home at the right moment and shout “hold it there! just let me get my sketchbook out” and then work it up later. He’s set up the composition, one assumes got a couple of women to model for it, then produced the painting. So the question is actually what do we want to interpret as going on here? And that’s a whole lot more open than if he’d made the context explicit. If you compare it with the painting Haret flettes by Christian Krohg in Oslo, which shows a girl having her hair braided (it’s a delightful painting by the way, worth seeing if you’re in Oslo) you can see how it’s a lot harder to unpick, or de-tangle one might say, the Degas. You’ve got to make your own story out of this one.
I ran the photo past some friends of mine with long hair and they all agreed that it was very reminiscent of what having their hair combed when they were younger was like..right down to the look of discomfort on the girl’s face! Degas has got the reality right here. It’s not a pleasent experience for her, that hand on her forehead seems to be either showing where it hurts or trying to take a bit of the tension off. The woman with the comb seems very relaxed an in the zone, she’s clearly enjoying it or at least enjoying whatever she’s day-dreaming of while she’s doing the brushing. You’ve got to wonder who is in control here, it looks like the woman with the comb really. So it could be a mother/daughter, or it could be a madam/working girl, or it could be a relationship with BDSM overtones – there’s a bit in Sarah Walter’s book Affinity where the heroine is reduced to tears by her maid’s brushing and the maid not only brushes harder but makes the heroine count all 100 strokes. This could easily be a caption for this painting.
There is a theory that Degas was a misogynist, he was definitely a conservative and an anti-semite, but the jury is out on his attitude to women. One of his friends said of him that “Degas enjoyed the company of women! He, who often depicted them with real cruelty, derived great pleasure from being with them, enjoyed their conversation and produced pleasing phrases for them.” (quote in this rather good article); I’m not sure he disliked women per se, but I do find myself beginning to wonder if he rather fantasized about cruelty to them, or at least finding themselves in positions in which they’re the victims.
Which brings me onto another recent Degas experience. I went to Cezanne and the Modern at the Asmolean a while back. In it was a Degas called ‘After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself‘ which I just kept coming back to. It’s first of all the pose, nobody dries themselves like that: I’m not an art historian and I don’t know all the back story to Degas and his works, but that painting is about her bum. Get somebody to shoot that today as a photograph with a model and try to convince anybody it’s about somebody drying themselves, go on, dare you. She’s bending over the arm of a sofa for heaven’s sake, who dries themselves over the arm of a sofa? The other thing was the skin tone, it wasn’t healthy, when you stand next to this large photo and really see it there is a quite nasty tone to it, sort of green…sort of…meat gone bad…sort of…dead. Personally, I think it’s creulty smut with a tasteful label to it. Then again so are a lot of the other Degas bathroom scenes; this one for example.
Though this one seems to have less of a sexual dynamic to it, she’s combing her hair in a way I’ve seen real girls do without any sign of discomfort, and she’s got a rather healthy skin tone too rather than that bruised green of the girl drying herself.
Okay, so I’m not trying to create a “50 Shades of Grey in Oil Pastels” out of Degas here, lots of his stuff is very straight art: think of all those ballerinas, or folks at the races for example, and lots of his pictures of women at their toilette (nobody says that any more, which I think is a shame) are sympathetically drawn and absolutely beautiful. But I do think that there are some of his pictures which go beyond that (and they are still great and visually lovely pictures) to a place where the woman is more victimised.
So, you make your own story out of La Coiffure, you get to decide who they are and what’s going on. Is she about to get her hair put up stylishly, change the slightly frumpy frock for a ball gown and dance the night away…is she getting brushed out after such an evening…or what? I’m not sure quite what story I’m going with, every time I look at it I come up with a different one!