Degas, Innovation and the Future of Pastel

At the awards celebration of the Pastel Society of America‘s 41st Annual Open Exhibition in New York City, the Society honored the distinguished art historian and curator Richard Kendall with its Friend of Pastel Award. Over the past two decades, Kendall has curated exhibitions at numerous museums, including the Clark Art Institute (where he is Curator at Large), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery, and the National Gallery, London. He has published extensively and is considered a preeminent living expert on the artwork of Edgar Degas. His wife and frequent collaborator, Jill DeVonyar, was also in attendance. Upon receiving the award, Mr. Kendall addressed the crowd with a few words concerning Degas and the future of pastel as a form of artistic expression. The following is my own summary of what I gleaned from his remarks (not Kendalls’ words verbatim).

Degas & Innovation
While pastel had been an established medium well in advance of Edgar Degas, it was his technical experimentation—often pushing well beyond traditional methods of application—which inspired subsequent generations of artists to consider its use. Degas brought a “do whatever is necessary” attitude to working with pastel that firmly catapulted it well beyond a delicate sketching medium. Pastel reinforced his natural draftsmanship tendencies and allowed him to easily break free from the confines of customary composition. His interest in photograph paralleled the science of his time. While he used it, he was not used by it. Kendall said this as a reminder to the group after observing the exhibition. Pastel is a means of expression, not a method for rendering a photograph. He also noted that the average hair color of the gathered crowd was gray. He stressed that that if pastel is to be a viable art medium in the future, it is paramount that we introduce and promote pastel to the next generation of emerging artists. We have to allow them to adapt it to their needs and encourage its evolution; otherwise, it will become a historic medium filled with romanticism, but relegated to nostalgia. Today we accept the pastel works of Edgar Degas as customary, but during his time, he was revolutionary!

Read more about Edgar Degas and pastel ingenuity in the October 2013 issue of Pastel Journal!

The Future of Pastel
A couple of days after the Awards Ceremony, an art class from Millburn High School in Millburn, N.J., was led on a gallery tour of the pastel exhibition by PSA president Jimmy Wright. Here is a copy of a letter he later received from the teacher:

Dear Jimmy,
Thank you for giving us a personal tour of the Annual Show and for offering yet another wonderful experience for the art students of Millburn High School. The trip to the Pastel Society of America is one of the highlights of our year and it serves as such an inspiration to the students. I appreciate the time you dedicate to giving the students such a thorough and engaging introduction to the medium of pastel. The wide variety of works on display serve to open the students’ eyes to the vast possibilities available to artists working in this medium and your presentation helps them to understand much about art that even goes beyond the subject of pastels. It is such fun for me to watch as the students begin to photograph the art and pull each other over and say, “Did you see this one?” The group leaves the society with a spark of enthusiasm that I believe they could not acquire in any other way. Below you will find some notes from the students expressing their sincere appreciation for such an amazing experience.

So, thank you so much for all you do!
Best Regards, (and hope to see you next year!!)
Kathleen Harte Gilsenan

Accompanying the letter were numerous notes from students filled with enthusiasm and thanks for the exposure to pastel. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the PSA and other pastel societies that tirelessly promote the medium of Degas to future generations: Thank You!

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PSA President Jimmy Wright surrounded by the 2013 group from Millburn High School. 

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