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summer arts preview | Visual arts

Degas through Picasso’s eyes

Clark exhibit traces links between the two

Pablo Picasso’s “Portrait of Sebastian Juñer Vidal’’ (above) shows the influences of Edgar Degas’s “In a Cafe (L’Absinthe).'The two hang side-by-side in the new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. Pablo Picasso’s “Portrait of Sebastian Juñer Vidal’’ (above) shows the influences of Edgar Degas’s “In a Cafe (L’Absinthe)."The two hang side-by-side in the new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. (Digital Image 2009 Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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Near the end of his long life, in a series of bawdy prints that are technically astonishing as well as fantastically kinky, Pablo Picasso depicted a pervy old voyeur ogling naked women. The old voyeur was Edgar Degas.

Degas had been dead more than half a century. But Picasso had been looking at his work since he was a young man, when Degas was a cranky old recluse still living in Paris and slowly going blind.

Picasso owned a set of Degas’s monotypes showing prostitutes in a brothel, and it was these prints, as well as Degas’s late pastels showing women washing themselves as if seen through a keyhole, that Picasso probably had in mind when he made those late, lascivious prints.

“Picasso Looks at Degas’’ at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute promises to be the show of the summer. It’s been organized by two brilliant scholars: Richard Kendall, the English-speaking world’s foremost expert on Degas, and Elizabeth Cowling, who knows Picasso’s work as well as anyone alive. The Clark will be the show’s only North American venue (it will travel to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona).

The idea is to show that Picasso’s late, comical depictions of Degas (in a period that also saw Picasso depict Rembrandt, Raphael, and Michelangelo) were not a random anomaly. The connections between the two artists went much deeper.

Both were great, academically trained draughtsmen, and both adored the linear art of Ingres. But they were also concerned to “be of their time’’ — to address aspects of modern life, including Paris’s flourishing café culture, the circus, the ballet, and the lives of the lower classes.

Picasso famously enjoyed a series of marriages and relationships with women, whereas Degas was a lifelong bachelor, and possibly impotent. But both, in their art, were obsessed with women, and especially the female nude (Degas’s nudes will be the subject of a major show at the Museum of Fine Arts next year).

Both Picasso and Degas demonstrated tremendous technical facility and innovation — not only in painting and drawing but in sculpture and printmaking. But they also gained a reputation for possessing a cool and clinical eye. The results, even when they were torrid — like those last great prints of Picasso — could be emotionally chilly. But they’re no less compelling for that.

Picasso’s interest in Degas in his early years was hardly unique. Artists from Walter Sickert to Paul Gauguin had been watching Degas with fascination for years. In Picasso’s case, the interest was often mediated through Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a protégé of Degas who addressed many of the same themes, including prostitutes, brothels, and cafes. Picasso’s early works have often — and quite rightly — been compared to those of Toulouse-Lautrec.

But always in the background — and until now mostly overlooked — was Degas.

The exhibit will offer some fascinating pairings to help make the case: Picasso’s 1901 Blue Period painting “Blue Room (Le Tub),’’ from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., for instance, shows a woman standing in a shallow tub and washing her thigh with a cloth. It will hang alongside a Degas monotype, “The Tub,’’ from 25 years earlier that the curators believe may have served as a prototype.

There will be other purposeful pairings in a similar vein, but also an attempt to bring out deeper connections between these two protean artists.

Exhibitions around the world have already paired Picasso with many of the artists he admired or felt challenged by, from his great rival Matisse and his co-conspirator Georges Braque to the aforementioned Ingres and of course Paul Cézanne. “Picasso Looks at Degas’’ is a less predictable and potentially more enlightening subject. It will be on view at the Clark from June 13 through Sept. 12.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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PICASSO LOOKS AT DEGAS

At: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, June 13-Sept. 12. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu

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