Two Avant-Gardes Works of Art:
Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans
By Maria Gassoumis
History of Asian Art
Instructor Chinghuey Tiao
Throughout history, art has changed and developed, has been invented and reinvented. The current practice of art is influenced by the art of the ages, a comprehensive accumulation of pieces and artists that span over the past 12,000 centuries (Lee), as preserved artwork of our ancestors and the ever-expanding collections from excavations from ancient worlds enrich our global knowledge of the world and our understanding and appreciation for art. Until modern times, however, the world was not universal, nations were not interconnected, and information was not readily accessible via the worldwide web or even by way of textbook or encyclopedia. Civilizations of the ancient world were isolated. Though the Ancient Silk Road established the first information superhighway in history to bridge east to west, the civilizations of ancient Asia had very limited access to other civilizations, and therefore, little outside influence on their artwork. Similarly, much of ancient European art remained uninfluenced by eastern civilizations. Even by the time of the Impressionist era, much of ancient eastern art had not been discovered and/or spread west (Lee).
In this paper, two pieces of art will be compared: Dancing Girl of the Mohenjo Daro excavation site of the Indus Valley Civilization of prehistoric India, and Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, by Edgar Degas of the Impressionistic era in Europe. Both of these pieces remain uninfluenced by foreign cultures and, therefore, very representative of their respective peoples and times. However, it is interesting that these two avant-gardes pieces of art, though historically and geographically unconnected and completely independent of each other (if sources stand correct), harbor unmistakable similarities.
The first piece is a relatively small copper statue of a prehistoric female called, Dancing Girl. It was excavated in 1926 at one of several sites belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization called Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan. The Indus Valley Civilization was an intelligent and advanced people, known for its intricate cities and sophisticated structures (O’Riley 63). Among its many outstanding accomplishments is Dancing Girl. Standing at 10.3 centimeters, she is one of the first human statues known to man and was skillfully crafted around 2500 B.C. to capture the essence of a female of her time (O’Riley). British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler shares his affection for the important piece:
She’s about fifteen years old I should think, not more, but she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on. A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world. There’s nothing like her, I think, in the world (Hirst).
Sculpted in age-withstanding copper material using the lost-wax technique that was characteristic of the times, Dancing Girl stands just as tall and as steadfast as she did 4500 years ago (Lee).
The second piece of art is another statue. Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans was sculpted from 1879-1881 by French realist, impressionist painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas, first sculpted in wax and then recreated years later in bronze. Like Dancing Girl, this 99.1 centimeter sculpture has survived the years because of its re-creation’s durable copper-based material. Degas, however, used wax on the original, explaining, “’It’s taking too much responsibility to leave something in bronze- that’s a substance for eternity” (Gordon 201). Despite Degas’ doubt, his sculpture of The Fourteen Year Old Dancer became a famous and revolutionary piece of art, celebrated for its realistic portrayal of the beauty, pain, and contradictions of a young dancer as never before seen in a sculpture (Gordon).
As their histories clearly explain, these two sculptures are worlds apart. One comes from a prehistoric civilization that existed two-hundred centuries before Christian era, and the other from a much more modernized and expanded western culture over 4,000 years later. While little is known about the purpose, artists, and subjects of Indus Valley artwork, impressionism is a well-known, thoroughly articulated artistic movement. One sculpture stands at just over four inches, while the other towers at over three feet in height. Even the bodies, poses, and attire of the subjects depicted in the two sculptures are vastly different. Though they are both young girls, the Dancing Girl has a young, boyish body, naked, save her numerous decorative bangles, with slightly disheveled hair and a strong and confident, yet comfortable and lackadaisical stance. Le Petite Danseuse’s young body shows premature age as a result of the rigors of dance; she wears a traditional ballerina costume made of tulle that is adorned on the statue, though not part of the sculpture itself, and her hair is neatly tied back in a ribbon. Her stance is practiced; it is strained yet natural, provocative yet pure. “She entertains a thousand contradictions: frail and tough, child-professional, chaste and sexy, mortal and timeless” (Gordon 201).
Yet, even with so many differences, these two outstanding pieces of art draw significant and undeniable parallels. Dancing Girl and Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans are both copper-based sculptures of young girls around fourteen years old. They both stand in an interesting and unique pose. Both stand with one leg straight and one stepped forward with their arms carefully placed in telling positions and their heads tilted in just the right way to convey their demeanor. Though the technicalities of each sculpture may vary, the details of each girl work to achieve the same goal. Both of these girls effectively represent each of their cultures, and in just a glimmer of a moment, their fleeting poses tell the viewer who they are, what they do, and what they feel. Dancing Girl wears no clothes, a declaration of her freedom, independence, and strength. She exudes courage, veracity, and capacity, all the while remaining imprudent. “We may not be certain that she was a dancer, but she was good at what she did and she knew it” (Hirst). Perhaps she is a tribute to all that a young girl was in her era: strong and naive, woman and girl, all at the same time. Le Petite Danseuse is also representative of her culture, if only of the ballerinas in nineteenth-century Europe. She stands tall with her long feet in fifth position, her hands gently interlocked behind her poised torso and below her effortlessly extended arms. Though she does not look uncomfortable, she does not look at ease. She conveys strain, pressure, and possible unhappiness below her well-learned grace and poise. There is something simultaneously beautiful and ugly about her, just as there is with Dancing Girl, and one cannot help but be lured in by her. Both girls entice with the story of their struggle, their tarnished innocence, and their fragile strength.
However, the similarities of these sculptures go beyond just their type of material, gender of subject, and body language. These two pieces of art are revolutionary in their own right. Dancing Girl was one of the first sculptures of a human in history. Historians believed the ancient Greeks to have been the first to explore sculpture of the human body. However, with excavations of the twentieth century that uncovered civilizations such as Indus Valley, it is now known that ancient Asian cultures sculpted human beings first.
Sir Thomas Marshall, excavator on site at Mohenjo Daro, remarked upon recovery of Dancing Girl:
"… When I first saw them I found it difficult to believe that they were prehistoric; they seemed to completely upset all established ideas about early art. Modeling such as this was unknown in the ancient world up to the Hellenistic age of Greece, and I thought, therefore, that some mistake must surely have been made; that these figures had found their way into levels some 3000 years older than those to which they properly belonged. … Now, in these statuettes, it is just this anatomical truth which is so startling; that makes us wonder whether…Greek artistry could possibly have been anticipated by the sculptors of a far-off age on the banks of the Indus" (Indus Valley Civilization).
Of these Indus statuettes, Dancing Girl is believed to be the first (Muley). Though unrealistic in appearance when compared to modern statues, Dancing Girl is centuries ahead of her time. She is a beautiful display of human sculpture in its earliest form.
Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans is also a revolutionary piece. Though not the first human statue in history, it is the first sculpture in time to display such a realistic element of the human being (Gordon). When one looks at her, one might feel as though he is looking at a real, live human being, and that had never happened before in history. Despite the ancient Greeks’ dedication to the details and proportions of the human body, they failed to capture the element of realism that Degas so successfully embodies in his work. Impressionism is described as an art of casual subjects, meant “to capture the mood of a particular moment”(Gordon 192). Degas’ work is definitely impressionistic, however Le Petite Danseuse “stands apart and alone” (Gordon 192), both from impressionism and from all other art. It indeed captures the mood of a particular moment, yet simultaneously conveys the most realistic portrayal of a human being at that point in history.
In comparing these two pieces of work from such different backgrounds, it is astonishing to see the parallels between them. But that is the beauty of art: it is the timeless expression of one artist that can be explored over centuries, can tell its own history, and, best of all, is subjective in its interpretation. “Sometimes, we are lucky enough to run across a single artifact that seems to speak to us across the ages, seems to express a culture both distant and not so far away from our present day, in one lovely concrete moment” (Hirst). That is just what these two pieces do.
Degas, Edgar. Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. Muse d’Orsay, Paris.
Dancing Girl. National Museum, New Delhi.
Gordon, Robert. “Degas.” Ed. Beverly Fazio. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1988. 192–207.
Gardner, Helen. “Art Through The Ages.” Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1959.
Hirst, K. Kris. “The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro.” Archaelogy. about.com. 2005.
Indus Valley Civilization. Answers.com. “n.d.”
Lee, Sherman. “A History of Far Eastern Art.” Ed. Naomi Noble Richard. Prentice-Hall,
Inc, 1994. 19–22.
Muley, Gunakar. “Dancing Girl from Mohenjo-Daro.” India’s Scientific Heritage.
O’Riley, Michael Kampen. “Art Beyond the West.” Prentice-Hall: Harry N. Abrams,
Inc, 2001 .63-64.