The Modern Degas You Haven’t Seen

“The Fireside” (1880-85) by Edgar Degas, a monotype on paper from the exhibition “A Strange New Beauty.” Credit The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“The Fireside” (1880-85) by Edgar Degas, a monotype on paper from the exhibition “A Strange New Beauty.” Credit The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

On the brink of the centenary of his death next year, the revered French artist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is having his first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is a large but thrillingly intimate exhibition centering on the artist’s monotypes — the most seductive of all print mediums — and their modernizing effect on his art.

In truth, Degas is a bit outside the historical reach of the Modern. It picks up art history in earnest just after Impressionism, the movement with which Degas is most associated, and long ago deaccessioned its only painting by him. The museum’s inaugural exhibition, in 1929, featured the four horsemen of the Post-Impressionist apocalypse — van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne. While Cézanne, the oldest of the group (he died in 1906), was five years younger than Degas, he’s the father of Cubism, meriting no fewer than 11 canvases in the Modern’s collection.

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“Waiting for a Client” (1879) by Edgar Degas, charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper. Credit Private Collection

Degas’s relationship to modernity was more complex and fraught. An ardent admirer of Ingres and a social conservative who became rabidly anti-Semitic with age, he resented being called an Impressionist, despite having participated in all but one of the group’s groundbreaking exhibitions. “Realist” was more acceptable to him and more accurate. He was a brilliant, academically trained draftsman whose central subject would always be the human body — depicted with a visceral combination of disinterest and tenderness.

Degas intended to devote himself to history painting when he returned to Paris in 1859, after three years spent studying Renaissance art in Italy. He exhibited one such painting, elastically titled “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” in his first Salon in 1865. But that was it. Contemporary subjects and the artists who painted them, like Édouard Manet, had diverted his interest. At the 1866 Salon, Degas exhibited “Scene From the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey,” which gives a racetrack accident some of the immediacy of a news photo.

Henceforth Degas’s art was populated by denizens of modern life — well-dressed Parisians of the boulevards, cafes and theaters; hard-working laundresses bent over steaming irons; ballet dancers onstage, at rehearsal or with admirers; entertainers, especially singers, in the glow of concert halls’ new electric lights; and nonchalantly nude women in private settings, including brothels, bedrooms and the bath.

“The Ballet Master” (1876) by Edgar Degas. Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic helped execute the work, a white chalk or opaque watercolor over monotype on paper. Credit Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
“The Ballet Master” (1876) by Edgar Degas. Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic helped execute the work, a white chalk or opaque watercolor over monotype on paper. Credit Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

These characters dominate the works at the Modern, where we see Degas’s realism softened and liberated, or conquered, by his prints. The tiny brothel images with their forthright nakedness and caricature-like figures especially overturn his earlier precision.

This exhibition reveals him afresh as an artist who experimented early and often with materials and mediums. His modernity isn’t so much an innovative style or structure but a merging of subject and process that brought new liveliness to depictions of the body and to art itself. It would not have happened without the malleable, touch-friendly monotype and its instantaneous process, which Degas embraced almost obsessively in two spurts, from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s and again in the early ’90s.
“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” was organized by Jodi Hauptman, senior curator of drawings and prints, with Karl Buchberg, senior conservator, and Heidi Hirschl, a curatorial assistant. It presents 120 monotypes and nearly 60 related prints, paintings, pastels, charcoal drawings and photos. Three sketchbooks on view can also can be flipped through digitally and underscore Degas’s keen attention to both urban life and the body.

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“Autumn Landscape” (1890) by Edgar Degas, monotype in oil on paper. Credit Private collection

Among print mediums, and perhaps all works on paper, monotypes were and remain hotbeds of spontaneity and improvisation. They’re made by composing in ink — with brush, rag, finger, fingernail, stick, just about anything — on a blank plate that is then layered with a damp sheet of paper and run through a printing press. Speed is of the essence. The first impression from each plate is unique; if more versions — cognates — are pulled from the same inking, they will be pale ghosts. Degas’s smaller monotypes can paradoxically be aerial close-ups: We might almost be riding the backs of his hands as they flit across a plate, revising, adding, wiping away while the ink is still wet and printable.

The exhibition begins with two etchings from Degas’s youth: an elegantly solemn self-portrait (seen in two states) and an increasingly shadowy portrayal of the engraver Joseph Tourny (three states). Both reflect attention to Ingres and especially Rembrandt.

But Degas learned the monotype technique around 1876 from his artist friend Ludovic Napoléon Lepic. After that, what the poet Stéphane Mallarmé referred to as the “strange new beauty” of Degas’s monotypes even destabilizes his more conventional etchings, etching-aquatints and lithographs.

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“Cafe Singer” (1877-78) by Edgar Degas, monotype on paper. Credit Private collection

Things become increasingly unorthodox and fragmentary as prints devoted to the spectacle of the cafe, concert hall and theater progress along one wall. Images wash out as if lighted by a flash bulb. Space is overtaken by intersecting, nearly monumental, geometries in “At the Café des Ambassadeurs” and its mate, “At the Ambassadeurs.” “Actresses in Their Dressing Rooms,” an etching-aquatint may prompt a double take: Its four vertical sections and truncated figures and shadows uncannily evoke Jasper Johns’s “Seasons” paintings. “Mademoiselle Bécat at the Ambassadeurs,” a lithograph from around 1875, benefits from lights and darks of the monotypes, with the chanteuse illuminated from below.

Lepice, a Rembrandt devotee, used plates already etched with images for his monotypes; six examples in the show were made atop a Dutch-looking shoreline scene supplemented by additions of trees, clouds or undergrowth. But Degas immediately realized that a blank plate offered complete freedom to crossbreed print and drawing methods.

He was probably the first artist to enhance the pale cognates with pastel. This yielded a series of jewel-like images of singers that surprise us at the beginning of the second gallery. There are clusters of works only glimpsed in previous Degas surveys. One gallery holds 27 landscapes from the early ’90s, in pigmented oil paint instead of ink — another innovation — which created a greater element of chance. Some are tightened up with additions of pastel; others are visionary stains, all but abstract areas of tinted texture and atmosphere that might have been made this year.

“Three Women in a Brothel, Seen From Behind” (1877-79) by Edgar Degas, pastel over monotype on paper. Credit Musée Picasso, Paris
“Three Women in a Brothel, Seen From Behind” (1877-79) by Edgar Degas, pastel over monotype on paper. Credit Musée Picasso, Paris

Another gallery is devoted to Degas’s “dark field” monotypes, made by covering a plate with ink and brushing, wiping or scratching it away, creating a motif by subtraction. A few expert wipes, and the naked, often contorted, bodies of women bathing or reading or going to bed emerge from the darkness. The intense privacy of female solitude acquires a macabre, yet formal power. (Goya’s “Black Paintings” come to mind.)

The show concludes with a series of magnificent late bathers and dancers whose saturated colors and rough textures expand the freedoms of monotypes into much larger works in oil or pastel. Here, Degas sometimes finished the figures with broken black outlines, as if to recall the monotypes.

“A Strange New Beauty” brings a new logic and coherence to Degas’s experimentation. It also reveals his monotypes as early signs of the 20th-century’s waves of nonacademic figuration — from the Fauves to German Expressionists to American artists like David Park — and abstraction itself. Most of all, it makes the past feel alive and useful, perhaps the most you can ask of any historical show.

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view March 26 through July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art; 212-708-9400, moma.org.

by Roberta Smith

Source: The New York Times

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Claude_Monet_-_Jardin_à_Sainte-Adresse

 

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