degas statue

98. Statuesque

I was surprised to find an unfamiliar version of Degas’s bronze of the little dancer at the National Museum Cardiff. This version has Marie van Goethem naked and waiting to be clothed. Marie left her working-class parents in Belgium and came to Paris to learn ballet. She presents a fourth-position stance. When the statue was first exhibited, plenty of men described her as ugly. It was a time when the Paris ballerinas were often targeted by pedophiles and, from what I read, Degas was a misogynist. Afterwards, Marie disappeared from history leaving only the many versions of her in statues as the last record of her existence.

In all the previous statues of Marie that I have seen she is wearing a tutu, a corset, and sometimes a ribbon in her hair. Those versions came after the one in Cardiff. This one in Cardiff has not even the same face.

The one I admire is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Degas's La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen). That 39-inch bronze exists in multiple copies displayed in more than two dozen museums. Each is slightly different, usually the color of her tutu. She's adorable. There is an expression of impudence on her face and for that she reminds me of my friend Stephanie.

degas dancer

I have known Stephanie since high school. Young men fell in love with her. My friends fell in love with her. I never did, but I could see what it was. Slight of build, she moved with a natural grace. She was comfortable in her clothes, dressing to a personal taste that was not dictated by the latest fashion nor aimed at exciting young men already driven mad by out-of-control hormones.

Stephanie had contempt for small talk or maybe it was shyness. She didn’t suffer the superficial, but she flamed when the subject was art and culture, losing herself in the esoteric. She was independent and not one of the girls. Never talking much, but when she did her few words were interesting. It was never about herself. Her reluctance to speak made her mysterious. When we conversed, it felt like we were in a French film.
Ah, but when I was sixteen and living at home, on my bedroom wall hung a large black and white poster of Sophia Loren, the iconic moment when she returns to the boat, her skimpy clothing soaked and translucent. The still was from the 1957 film Boy on a Dolphin, which I never saw and didn’t realize was in color, a film that also happens to be about a statue. It was how the ubiquitous culture of my age directed my instincts, molded my tastes.

Forty-five years ago, I left Ricker College in Houlton, Maine without completing my education in order to pursue a romance. I followed my sweetheart who was also leaving school to return home to Boston. I cannot say if she was promising a relationship or I had deluded myself into believing one was forthcoming. I was young and poisoned by the hormones raging through my body. She was a bombshell, sexually irresistible. Nothing came of it and I found myself living in Brookline, adjacent to Boston, and working as a clerk for the Social Security Administration. I went to the museums a lot.

On one visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, an easy stroll across Riverway Park and the Muddy River, I found a small bronze figure of a standing woman wrapped in a cloak. However, she was lifting the cloak open to reveal her demure face and pert breasts. The title of the piece was “Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science”, a 23-inch bronze by Louis-Ernest Barrias. Nature was attractive. I lusted to own the piece. I thought the allegory very clever at the time.

Recalling the statuette now causes me to laugh. Only a horny man would credit the erotic pose as an allegory to the pursuit of science. The statue was not describing a passion for science. It was, if anything, a distraction from the pursuit of science. The figurine will not hold the same symbolism for the woman scientist, unless she is a lesbian. Could there be another bronze with the same title showing instead the figure of a young man drawing apart his cloak to reveal his penis and calling it “Nature Unveiling Himself Before Science”?

I have become the old man, yet my eyes still lust at the sight of nubile women. Long ago, my youthful passions for women like Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch with time gave way to more sophisticated tastes, switching my allegiance to Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, and Audrey Hepburn. I do not say Audrey Hepburn without sighing.

Then I met Ms Keogh. She would become my cherished companion. In a few days, the seventh of March, it will be our 33rd wedding anniversary - had she lived. 37 years ago, on a warm summer night, I rode Amtrak’s Night Owl coming up from New York City to court her. Because Ms Keogh lived in Canton, a suburb of Boston, I used to get off the train at Route 128, a stop before Boston. That summer morning, she was not there to meet me. I had a long wait before her appearance. Further south, she came out of the woods that lined the track and danced, balancing on the rail in a flowing long skirt, a slender nymph. She was the “Spirit of Ecstasy” on the hood of a Rolls-Royce.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions,
he would be pleased to hear from you. 

You can find his several books at Enshrined Inside Me, his second collection of essays, is now available to purchase.