The Spectacular Body: Science, Method, and Meaning in the Work of Degas
Yale University Press, 1995 - 244 pages
The Spectacular Body explores the ways in which the human body--especially the female body--was visualized by artists in late nineteenth-century Paris. Focusing on the work of Degas, it deals with issues of sexuality, gender, and visual representation to illuminate the underlying meanings of the famed Impressionist's depictions of women in his series of bathers, dancers, and prostitutes.
Engaging in feminist polemic, Anthea Callen investigates why at this particular time the female figure became such a highly charged icon for masculine projections of fascination with and revulsion over the body. She explains how the gender politics of Degas' culture made it inevitable that he represent masculine desire--and anxieties about masculine identity evoked by such desire--through an apparently detached masculine scrutiny of the female body. Callen shows how Degas' pictorial stance was structurally unresolved, caught between a controlling, distanced, quasi-scientific observation on the one hand, and a disruptive and more unmediated, more psychically loaded engagement with the body on the other. Locating Degas' art within his own historical era, she discusses how socio-scientific ideas of health and disease, hygiene and dirt, prostitution, criminality, sexuality, class, race, and other issues were played out in his work. Using visual analysis as a deconstructive tool, she discusses Degas' choice of medium, composition, spatial organization, pose, color, and light and shade, showing that his technical unorthodoxy combined with scientific discourse in his art to make his work a paradigm of artistic and urban modernity.