Sunday, March 30, 2008


If Beethoven had gone deaf all at once, he might not have developed into Beethoven. He might simply have adapted to the loss, as many others have.

But Beethoven's hearing gradually slipped away over 25 years, coming and going unpredictably. It faded tantalizingly in and out of reach as he was trying to realize his artistic visions. This slow torture caused him daily anguish. He could never be certain whether he would be capable of conducting a concert. Worse, he never knew which precious sound would be his last.

Beethoven didn't dare tell the world about his disability but he wrote of his despair in a private testament, agonizing that when other people heard a sound,

I heard nothing... such incidents brought me to the verge of despair.... I would have put an end to my life -- only... it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence.
Historians such as Robert Greenberg and Maynard Solomon believe Beethoven was able to reach new heights because of the spiritual and physical isolation he suffered during his prolonged struggle with his hearing. Perhaps his seclusion from the sounds of the world freed him from convention and allowed him to create new musical forms.

Beethoven's tragic burden is an example of what Peter Viereck calls "the weight that tortures diamonds out of coal."

Which brings us to the artist Degas.

Degas started out as a meticulous craftsman, carefully trained in traditional drawing and painting methods.

However, he suffered from increasingly poor vision his entire adult life. As John Updike reported, "by his forties he was virtually blind in his right eye; and by the 1890s he periodically donned corrective spectacles blacked out except for a small slit in the left lens."

Over the years as his eyesight dimmed, Degas developed a looser, more energetic style:

He lived in dread of his oncoming blindness, but as the artist David Levine noted,

It didn’t stop Degas.... He went on to change his way of seeing. He just moved into a rhythm of color and bigger generalities in the way he saw things like hands or faces.
Just as with Beethoven, some of Degas' most beautiful work resulted from his enormous talent twisting and turning to escape being smothered by the artist's physical disability:

Green Landscape

Wooded Landscape

Tantalus was the character from Greek mythology who stole ambrosia from Zeus' table and brought it back to his people, revealing the secrets of the gods.

His punishment was terrible: he spent eternity in a pool of water beneath a bountiful fruit tree. But whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised above his grasp. Whenever he bent down to try to drink, the water receded. (We get the word "tantalize" from poor Tantalus.) And while all that food and drink hovered beyond his reach, the gods placed a threatening boulder over his head.

The price of ambrosia comes high.


ces said...

one hand gives . . . the other hand takes away

Anonymous said...

Sometime ask myself whether the price people pay for success and accolade if ever worth it. Invariably the answers always comes back as "yes". The price of immortality is always worth it. Artists almost always give back far more than they take.

Aman Chaudhary said...

I love your blog, and it seems every post is one I must share with friends!

David Apatoff said...

ces, if we are lucky it works that way. Like you, I'd like to believe there is always some compensating symmetry for life's little tragedies. However, sometimes that "giving" hand does not seem to show up.

jellicottcoleman, when people talk about whether the trade offs are "worth it," I always wonder, "worth it to who? To the future generations who enjoy it, or the artist who feels the pain and isn't around to enjoy the immortality?" But when I listen to Beethoven's piano concerto no. 5 in E flat, I have to feel that it was all worth it to Beethoven; a person could die complete, knowing that he or she had brought such a thing of aching beauty into the world.

Aman, what a great message to get! I only hope you don't lose friends as a result.

Benjamin von Eckartsberg said...

What a great blog! Thanks for sharing your passion for illustration not only in showing the work of the masters of the field but also for the interesting comments and thoughts about the subject matter. I visit your blog for some months now, always inspirational! I linked you up at my blog, if you don´t mind.
All the best!

ces said...

David, there is always some compensating symmetry for life's little tragedies. Always. It is up to us, however, to find it and accept it. And perhaps that in itself is the compensating symmetry. I am reminded of the lyrics in the song Amazing Grace - "I was blind, but now I see."

I think I need to eat some breakfast.


Mark said...

Hi David I'm sure those are all paintings but some look almost like pastels to me. Degas was a great artist even with his fading sight you can see how delibrate his hand was, I aspire for even that much control of line. Awesome.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Benjamin; I enjoyed visiting your blog.

CES, did you continue to have these visions of Amazing Grace after breakfast? Hmmm... perhaps this is a prelude to some momentous event? Write back if you hear the celestial choir beginning to sing.

Mark, you are right that Degas used pastels, but after he applied pastels thickly, he would work them aggressively, sometimes steaming or melting them together, then scratching the thick surface with a knife or needle. Quite dramatic!

8:39 PM

ces said...

No David, no celestial choir. I don't know why the song Amazing Grace made me think of breakfast. Come to think of it, I don't know why I thought of the song either.

Unfortunately, Degas's art doesn't sing to me. He's obviously a good artist, I just find it so-so.

Anonymous said...

"His punishment was terrible: he spent eternity in a pool of water beneath a beautiful fruit tree."
He SPENT? So eternity is over now? Thank God!...

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, if poor Tantalus was still standing there today, I would feel obligated to try to rescue him, wouldn't you? But your point is well taken. We welcome mathematicians here as well as the poets.

Jack Ruttan said...

I like the idea of Degas doing his wax sculptures as kind of 3-dimensional drawings. Thought he might have done these late in his career after the disabilities struck, but apparently he was doing them all the time.

Saw nice examples in the Ontario Museum of Art.

Anonymous said...

The later Degas are marvelous, just pure light, in some ways like Turner - letting the light itself describe the thing. They must have seemed awfully strange to the contemporary art scene.

They exist in the place where the thing is seen before it is named.

David Apatoff said...

Jack and Dougrogers, it's good to hear from peoiple who share my views about Degas' special qualities. It's easy to mentally categorize his role in history and put him on the shelf but every time I revisit him for a close look, he gives me fresh delight.