M Degas Steps Out: An Essay by Philip Hoy review – an artistic encounter across a century

A nine-second 1915 film of the painter Edgar Degas inspires a beguiling meditation on life in Paris during the first world war

Bianca Stigter’s recent documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening is based on a short home movie taken by an American tourist in the Polish town of Nasielsk in 1938. The same section of film appears again and again, accompanied by commentary and testimonies, slowed down, zoomed in on and freeze-framed. Yet these everyday images of Jewish life acquire an extraordinary poignancy because we know that almost everyone on screen will soon be caught up and killed in the Holocaust.

Something of the same spirit pervades Philip Hoy’s striking essay-length book M Degas Steps Out. When he went to an exhibition about Edgar Degas in 2011, he became “totally mesmerised” by a nine-second film clip of the ageing painter walking down a Paris street. So he downloaded it on to his computer, slowed it down and broke it up into 250 stills, 42 of which are included here. Just before the screen fades to black, we witness what he describes as a “beatific” moment as a passing young woman turns towards us, “we register how beautiful she is” and she “positively beams at [the camera], and in so doing beams at us as well” – and “the more than one hundred years which separate us are wholly annulled”.

By subjecting this tiny sequence to intense analysis, Hoy shows how it reflects a tragic turning point in French life. Early in the first world war, the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry put together a short propaganda film showcasing leading figures in French culture. Friends such as Sarah Bernhardt and Claude Monet were happy to perform for the camera, but when Degas grumpily spurned his approaches Guitry was obliged to film him surreptitiously.

Paris ‘has been feminised’ because of the first world war; few men are seen in the film
Paris ‘has been feminised’ because of the first world war; few men are seen in the film. Photograph: handout

When we realise we are looking at wartime Paris, Hoy suggests, we start to notice the absences. The city has been “feminised”, with more women than men out and about. Only a soldier and one other man appear to be of military age. And the once busy streets are now empty of traffic, since most vehicles were requisitioned by the army.

But what about the unknown figures glimpsed momentarily and then lost for ever? Could the soldier be one of the tiny minority stationed in Paris or granted a short period of leave – and was he among the 1.4 million French people who perished in the war? Could the four women in ankle-length outfits be entertainers, Hoy wonders, or perhaps some of the city’s 6,000 registered sex workers coming home from “Leave Land”, near the Gare du Nord, which, according to one historian, would shortly witness “an explosion in open-air sex”? Why is the gawping young man on a triporteur or delivery tricycle not away at the front? And what, if anything, can we read into an ephemeral glance?

Although he has clearly read widely on the social history of Paris, Hoy admits that much of his essay amounts to “idle speculation” but he has certainly woven a beguiling tapestry around it.

• M Degas Steps Out: An Essay by Philip Hoy is published by Waywiser (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Matthew Reisz

The GuardianTramp

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