Degas Beyond Ballerinas

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Landscape with Rocks (Paysage avec rochers), 1892. Pastel over monotype in oil on wove paper. Sheet: 10 1/8 × 13 9/16″ (25.7 × 34.4 cm). High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund. Image courtesy of MOMA.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Landscape with Rocks (Paysage avec rochers), 1892. Pastel over monotype in oil on wove paper. Sheet: 10 1/8 × 13 9/16″ (25.7 × 34.4 cm). High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund. Image courtesy of MOMA.

I went to the wonderful show, Edgar Degas, A Strange New Beauty at MOMA.  Consisting of 180 works (120 monotypes plus 60 paintings, drawings, sketches) from 89 lenders (US and overseas, public and private) the exhibit focuses on Degas’ fascination and exploration of the monotype, a medium which allowed him to experiment with new ways of  depicting the world around him.   A world that was rapidly changing, thanks to the introduction of electricity, enabling new modes of traveling, working, and seeing.  No longer constrained by daylight, people could now go out more easily and safely at night, to bars, cafés, brothels or the ballet. 

Monotype, a hybrid of drawing and printing, was the perfect medium to visually express this new opening up of society, with its concurrent change in social mores.  Degas made full use of it, employing either the dark field method, in which a copper plate is completely covered in ink, and then a rag or brush is used to wipe away the design, or the light field method in which the ink is applied to a clean plate to make the design. A sheet of paper is then pressed against the plate, and the deign is pulled, usually only once, but sometimes twice (rarely three times).  Degas would sometimes use his fingers to move the ink, or create a blurred effect, as in the prints of the bathers.   Sometimes, as in his landscapes, which can verge on the abstract, he would use oil paint, rather than the black printers ink, to achieve a color monotype.  Sometimes he would do a second pull, and enhance the resulting “ghost image” with pastel, allowing him to further explore his interest in repetition and transformation.  You’ll find several groupings that show how Degas traced, inverted, and recombined figures into different arrangements.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Café Singer, c.1877‑78. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 3/4 × 6 3/8 in. (12 × 16.2 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy of MOMA

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Café Singer, c.1877‑78. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 3/4 × 6 3/8 in. (12 × 16.2 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy of MOMA

Degas’ innovations are found not only in the new ways he pushed the medium, but also in his choice of subjects – rather than classical or mythological or religious themes, he depicted contemporary stage performers, café singers, prostitutes, laundry women, or scenes of women bathing, grooming – often with contorted bodies, but always with a sense of intimacy, of subjects worth depicting. 

The exhibition proceeds from small and dark monotypes to large and light, ending with a room full of paintings and drawings of (yes!) ballet dancers. 

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c.1876. Pastel over monotype on laid paper. Plate: 10 5/8 × 14 7/8 in. (27 × 37.8 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy of MOMA.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c.1876. Pastel over monotype on laid paper. Plate: 10 5/8 × 14 7/8 in. (27 × 37.8 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy of MOMA.

I recommend watching the short video in the exhibition explaining the monotype process, and using one of the magnifying glasses in each room to explore the images close-up (you can see the fingerprints and smudge marks). 

All in all, this is a magnificent show, and a chance to see part of Degas’ oeuvre that is less often shown in these parts.  The show closes on July 24th, but get there sooner, as I guarantee you’ll want to go back.

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