BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 10 OCT 18

How Degas’s Paintings of Women Show a Commitment to Common Life

There’s a difference between respecting people’s right to tell their own stories and refusing to look at all

BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 10 OCT 18

Edgar Degas, La Coiffure (Combing the Hair), circa. 1896, oil on canvas, 1.1 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Edgar Degas painting La Coiffure (Combing the Hair, 1896) hangs on a red wall at London’s National Gallery, next to a marble pillar the rippling colours of aged beef. The staff call it ‘Big Red’: a tomato-soup interior in which a red-headed woman in a tomato-coloured shift, maybe pregnant, is having the flaming taper of her hair combed out by a maid, also red-headed, in a white apron and pink blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves. It’s a weirdly loose painting, a tonal symphony in which something disquieting, sexy, a little strange, is taking place.

At the beginning of October, I went to ‘Unexpected View’ at the National Gallery to hear the painter Chantal Joffe talk about La Coiffure. She was describing how the oil paint had been made to look like pastel when someone asked her about voyeurism. Was Degas being voyeuristic, was he watching something forbidden through a keyhole? ‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s not like that. I think he almost wants to be a woman.’

The previous night, I’d been looking at a different redhead. The trans performance artist La JohnJoseph was reprising their Edinburgh show A Generous Lover in a tiny black-box theatre behind Euston station. Eating an emergency packet of Walker’s crisps on the pavement outside, I didn’t feel like watching anyone do anything. It was the week of the Kavanaugh hearings, moody autumn, everyone trapped in a psychodrama no less agonising for being grossly out-of-date, a 1980s frat boy rerun in which we were all now extras. 

Anyway, there was La JJ, in a crumpled violet dress that opened and closed with a complicated network of folds around the neck. The play was a true story about La JJ’s lover, here called Orpheus, who was unwillingly detained in a mental hospital during a manic episode. La JJ played all the roles: doctor, patient, visitor; now Katharine Hepburn, now a working-class Scouse wife. In the underworld, everyone was transfigured. The patients had baroque names: The Lobster King, El Infante, Gerry Adams, The Wounded Saint. Their dramas, which were repetitive and hopeless, though not without humour, took place in a landscape of total austerity, an empire of lack. Sinks without taps, toilets without seats, kitchens without forks, nurses watching lolcat videos behind plexiglass screens.

The play was horrifying and funny and defiantly beautiful. A few days after I saw it, still reeling, a writer I was on a panel with said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it is no longer desirable to write about the lives of other people or experiences one hasn’t had. I didn’t agree. I think writing about other people, making art about other people, is both dangerous and necessary. There are moral lines. There are limits to the known. But there’s a difference between respecting people’s right to tell or not tell their own stories and refusing to look at all.

Should Degas have painted those two women? Should he have insinuated or imagined himself into their chamber? Should La John Joseph have brought their little red notebook into Ospidale and written down what the men said in their delirium? It depends whether you believe that we exist primarily as categories of people, who cannot communicate across our differences, or whether you think we have a common life, an obligation to regard and learn about each other.

Anyway, isn’t it an impossible line to demarcate? What’s autobiography? Was La JJ’s play autobiographical, or was it about a communal psychic state or, for that matter, a scrupulous accounting of the consequences of Tory cuts? Was Degas painting something that he’d seen – verifiable, external – or, as Chantal suggested, something that he wanted to become? Is La Coiffure a mirror in which the painter is caught red-handed, confessing to how he longs to see himself?

On the same panel, another writer spoke about opacity, about how essential it is to allow the people you depict to keep their secrets, their strangeness and their separateness from you. That’s a kind of moral code I can get behind. Look again at Degas’s scarlet woman. Is she frowning in pain or is she stretching her white neck in ecstasy? It remains opaque. Her body is recorded, and yet she remains unbreached, a private red presence in a public red room.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her latest book The Garden Against Time: In Search of the Common Paradise will be published in May 2024.