“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” is the first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art and the first of the artist’s monotypes since an exhibition at Harvard’s Fogg Museum in 1968. Hauntingly beautiful, the 120 monotypes and 60 related paintings, pastels, drawings, sketchbooks and prints center on Degas’s experimentation with monotype, a process leading to modernizing his art across different mediums.
Waiting for the Client, Edgar Degas,1877-1879
An artist known for his paintings and sculpture and as a chronicler of the ballet, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) looms large in the history of 19th century art. He was aligned with the Impressionists, a label he shunned referring to himself as a realist veering away from traditional subjects. He drew with the precision of a draftsman and, unlike his contemporaries, never painted in the great outdoors creating images from memory.
Degas worked in oil, pastel, charcoal, and print media and throughout his career experimented with materials, but it was printmaking where he seemed to reach his highest level of originality. In 1876 his friend Ludovic Napoléon Lepic introduced him to monotype, a looser process that allowed for spontaneity, freeing him from the rigors of the academy.
The Fireside, Edgar Degas, 1880-1885
Quite simply, monotype is a hybrid between painting and printmaking. A metal plate is drawn on with black ink using a brush, fingers, or rag then run through a press with a damp sheet to produce a single impression. For a more degraded look, it can be repeated. Or, by smothering ink on a plate and by removing portions selectively, the artist works in reverse going from dark masses to lighter areas. Degas later added in pastel coloring for a softer more refined look. Thus, the idea of repetition, transformation, mirroring and reversal, tactility and tone opened up all sorts of possibilities, a key concept of modern art.
Degas used this new technique in capturing Parisian modern urban life as a city in perpetual motion. Subjects range from well-dressed Parisians with their faces blurred indicating movement as they walk briskly along the wide boulevards; spectacles in cafes and theaters; laundresses hover over steaming irons; ballet dancers with their admirers, onstage or in rehearsals always in perpetual motion, legs often in spirals; entertainers and singers bask in the glow of concert halls’ new electric lights; and casually placed fleshy nude women in private settings, including brothels, bedrooms and the bath.
The Ballet Master, Edgar Degas, 1876
One of the best examples of Degas’s entry into his monotype phase is an early work “The Ballet Master” (1876). Here we have a dancer and ballet master on stage conjured up from the blackness with smudges and swipes. Extending their arms toward one another, Degas attenuated the images by working from dark to light by applying either white chalk or opaque watercolor for footlights.
In one gallery Degas’s “dark field” monotypes depict bathers’ contorted bodies, some blending in with their environment. Made by covering a plate with ink then brushing, wiping or scratching it away, an image is created by subtraction. Following a few wipes, naked, robust women bathing or reading or going to bed emerge from the darkness.
Forest in the Mountains, Edgar Degas, 1890
After a hiatus of several years, Degas returned to creating monotypes in the 1890s inspired by a train ride – a new mode of transportation – while standing at the door looking at the fields and hills. Displayed in a separate gallery, 27 colored monotypes, a series of simple abstractions made from pigmented oil pastels, a departure from ink – shows shifting forms, works that could easily have been created in mid 20th century.
In the closing section of the show a wonderful selection of late oil paintings, pastels, and charcoals is a reminder how this restless, brilliant artist pushed the boundaries of realism and didn’t stick to the conventions of Impressionism.
Organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints; with Karl Buchberg, Senior Conservator; and Heidi Hirschl, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art; and Richard Kendall, independent art historian and curator, “Edgar Degas: A Strange Beauty” is on view through July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art; 11 W 53rd St., 212-708-9400, moma.org.
Opening photo: Café Singer by Edgar Degas 1877-1878, monotype on paper.
Waiting for the Client, by Edgar Degas,1877-1879,
pastel over monotype on paper, mounted on paper
Ann and Gordon Getty
The Fireside, by Edgar Degas, 1880-1885
monotype on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection,
The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, and C. Douglas Dillon Gift
The Ballet Master, by Edgar Degas, 1876
white chalk or opaque watercolor over monotype on paper,
executed in collaboration with Ludovic Napoléon Lepic
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection
Forest in the Mountains, by Edgar Degas, 1890
monotype on paper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Louise Reinhardt Smith Beques