There’s an awful lot to Degas, Sickert & Toulouse-Lautrec, London & Paris 1870-1910 at Tate Britain, but fortunately the website is rather good (see the paintings, view video clips et cetera) and the multimedia guide is even better (even if Stephen Fry’s the narrator). It’s worth mentioning the latter because even though it’s the same price as an audio guide and works the same way (tap in a number and press enter) the Tate’s staff is keen to push the older technology. Restricted to audio, you don’t get to compare what you’re looking at with other works, see what place look like today or view archive film footage. So ask for the multi-media guide and plan to be here for hours.
Fully immersed you’ll get a real sense of the time in which these artists were working and why their work was controversial. Particularly enjoyable is Room 5, a homage to dandyism and, at the other end of the social scale, there’s real insight to be gained into the world of the variety theatres in Room 2. L’Absinthe gets Room 4 and a mocked up newspaper charting the controversy that raged. Many felt that L’Absinthe could not be art:
‘A man and a woman, both of the most degraded type, are seated on a bench in a wine-shop, their backs reflected in a glass screen behind them… the total effect… is one which most of us will be anxious to banish from our minds as quickly as possible’
The work told us nothing of Degas’ skill that we didn’t know already. The subject was ‘repulsive’ and so this could not be art… though nobody denied it depicted a reality. These ideas meant that visiting Diane Arbus at the V&A, as we did that afternoon made perfect sense. It showed how completely the establishment’s view of what art is for has changed.