Edgar Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, 1865, Oil and petrol on paper glued on canvas, 33.5 x 58 cm
When I first saw Degas’s Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source” I felt like I was experiencing the actual ballet as an audience member might have, accessing the elusive suspension of disbelief that allows viewers to get swept up in the narrative experience. Theatrical bracketing has always interested me. The title tells us that the figures are on stage, and this location alone suggests that any action that might take place could be scripted. Yet the set design for “La Source” actually incorporated a live horse and pools of water, so in some ways the image maintains a realistic spirit, and might be a depiction of a pause in rehearsal, as Eugénie Fiocre’s cast off ballet slippers hint.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source,” 1867-68, Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 57 1/8 inches
I experience a similar suspension of disbelief mixed with a lingering awareness of the script when I think about Scene of War in the Middle Ages, Degas’s last “history” painting, an image that I have always been perplexed and fascinated by. The title puts a neat bow of explanation on something that in actuality is a strange and highly constructed image. It is clear that Degas choreographed the composition from his imagination, positioning the nude models’ bodies to be at the mercy of the riders, in a relatively lurid way that one can only think he found exciting, disturbing, or some confusing combination of the two.
The figure in yellow is is aiming a bow at one of the women clustered to the left of the image. There is a sense of threat in the arrow, but none of the women have visible wounds. I’m drawn to this image partially because it frames a perilous moment. At the same time it hinges on ridiculous. The right edge of the painting crops a woman’s body in a bizarre way, rendering her literally as legs and butt, save one flailing arm we see behind her captor. The women lying in partial dress in the lower left hand corner seem so obviously to be studio models, one cannot help but be reminded that this is a staged fantasy of violence. The composition itself is also incredibly stagelike, the landscape behind the road could almost be a backdrop. The veneer of the unreal or imagined nature of the image makes the painting less frightening, though no less dramatic.
Edgar Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, Detail
Jeremy Maas described the way that Victorian fairy painting allowed access to eroticism and other taboo subjects, under the guise that viewers were looking at fairies. This context allowed painters and viewers to enter otherwise forbidden territory. Degas was obviously not a fairy painter, but the same principle feels relevant. Through the premise of the title and several historical garments, perhaps Degas was subconsciously giving himself (and the viewer) permission to explore a story of sexual violence, which on some level he found titillating, or at least fascinating.
To depict something is not necessarily to agree with it, however Degas was clearly portraying sexual power dynamics in a way that we now easily recognize as problematic. On some level, Degas’s images are built on, and have arguably promoted, misogynistic ideas. In her essay, “Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta,” Jane Ward discusses the problem of being turned on by politically incorrect porn. Her approach is that politics and libido do not always line up, and if one is drawn to irresponsible imagery, the important thing is that “we mindfully consume it, noting what it does and does not do for us, how we respond, what stories we tell about its meaning and ours in relation to it.” I doubt Degas was functioning under anything resembling Ward’s philosophy, and I’m aware of how easy and dangerous it could be to twist her thoughtful position into an argument for destructive imagery. But perhaps her logic makes a space within which to begin to unpack my own relationship to some of Degas’s images. I feel a troubling but undeniable pull towards Scene of War in the Middle Ages.
In grad school during an interview exercise I was asked whether I would be friends with Degas. The answer came quickly. “I love his work; we might not be friends.” It is impossible to know what Degas’s personal, ethical, or erotic relationship to these images was. In generous moments I (perhaps recklessly) want to believe it was exploratory, healing, scary and difficult for him, even if he did have misogynistic ideas about women. Maybe even because he had these ideas. At the very least, we see that it was complicated.
In the end all I am sure of is the value of fiction. The protective nature of narrative framing allows one to delve into complicated, even embarrassing or disturbing emotions. In successful moments, I’ve found the creation of fictional images to be a way to rewrite troubling social situations and personal experiences, and, through a mixture of reflection and alteration, to combat repression.
Sophia Narrett, Something Went Wrong (detail), 2015, Embroidery Thread and Fabric, 35 x 53 inches
Sophia Narrett makes narrative embroideries driven by love, desire and fear. Her upcoming solo show, titled “Early in the Game,” opens at Freight + Volume Gallery September 2016. www.sophianarrett.com
 Maas, Jeremy. “Victorian Fairy Painting.” In Victorian Fairy Painting, edited by Jane Martineau, 11-22. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997.
 Ward, Jane. “Queer Feminist Pigs: A Spectator’s Manifesta.” The Feminist Porn Book. Ed. Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Celine Shimizu, Mireille Miller-Young. New York City: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013. p. 138.
Degas had a great influence on contemporary painters who tend to actualize narrative in painting.
This is a marvelous narrative of a painting I was unfamiliar with early Degas painting Sophia Narrett illuminates.The painting is pictorial and allegorical yet configured within the “theatrical” construct, a tableau we know is “staged”, but grabs the visceral, primitive, closer to Bosch than the Degas of full impressionism, light and dancing strokes, each one on point, sexuality expressed through fabric and pose. The gift to see Sophia Narrett’s own work, deepened her investigation of the aesthetic and relational subtext.
A really interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you