Often remembered solely for his soft pastels of dainty ballerinas, practicing in the studio or rehearsing on stage, Edgar Degas is finally being exhibited in a new light by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Organised by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator of drawings and prints, ‘A Strange New Beauty’ is the museum’s first monograph dedicated to the nineteenth-century French artist and treats viewers to over 120 monotype prints, alongside 60 of his other works, pastels, etchings, drawings and photographs. Among other highlights, the show draws particular attention to Degas’ practice, which offers visitors to this exhibition a new approach into the rich and unique world of the artist.
The exhibition opens with an introduction to monotype print – made by mechanically transferring to paper a drawing done on a metal plate. Introduced to the technique by Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic around 1876, Degas became fascinated by the rich possibilities it offered and continued experimenting with it well into the 1890s. Taught by Lepic how to “print as a painter,” in the manner of the great Dutch Master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Degas discovered in monotype a way to play with contrasts and create textures in a new way. Most of his first monotypes represent landscapes, and demonstrate the artist’s fascination for the medium’s ability to manipulate ink in to reproducing effects found in nature. From experimenting with the tip of his brush, to the use of his fingers, Degas compellingly manages to capture the motion of the wind or the flow of the water. As the exhibition later reveals, this experimentation process will become typical of Degas’ future artistic practice.
By the 1890’s, we are shown that the artist started adding oil paint or pastel to his monotype landscapes, which allowed him to further play with the element of chance occurring during the print process. Never knowing exactly how the print will turn out, Degas turned his black and white prints into “chimerical scenes”, where the unpredictability of the medium captured and translated the inconsistency of the natural world.
Playing between control and accident in order to record meteorological effects, Degas could easily be classed as one of the fathers of Impressionism. And yet, Degas is said to have resented such attribution, preferring the association to Realism instead. True enough, the exhibition does turn the focus on Degas’ fascination for capturing the Parisian zeitgeist, in a medium which itself reflected the modernity of his time. In his societal essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Charles Baudelaire famously coined a notion of modernity defined and characterised in terms of constant and rapid fluidity, speed and movement. Degas’ attraction to monotype is perhaps best explained by the medium’s ability to render movement, thus conveying the energy and velocity of the new modernized Hausmannian Paris. From the representation of the mechanical and metronomic tempo of the buses and passersby in constant movement, to the animated café concert, monoprinting offered Degas the possibility to capture the atmosphere and energy of urban life. Conveying the hustle and bustle of the city’s nightlife through smudges and the dab-marks of a sponge, nothing in Degas’ prints is ever a true reflection of the real world. Rather it is always distorted or reworked, evoking not only what can be seen but also what can be heard or felt. In doing so, Degas captures – perhaps even creates – the aura of the new Parisian life. And so, Degas represents his dancers and entertainers in the glow of electric lighting or reflected in the café’s kaleidoscopic mirrors — each transformed into contorted silhouettes, playing a part in his enchanted spectacle.
Moving his brush further into the darkness and debauchery of Parisian nightlife, the exhibition also offers a discovery into Degas’ fascination for the brothel scene. These small-scale monotypes, which were never sold or exhibited, were part of the artist’s private practice and further evidence his appetite for artistic experimentation. The use of agitated brushstrokes here, for example, reflects the constant flux and change that is characteristic of the Parisian brothel. The women are represented in inelegant, unselfconscious poses, producing a voyeuristic sensation for the viewer (accentuated by the small scale of the prints), which further underlines Degas’s place as a true painter of modern life. These brothel works particularly evoke the naturalistic descriptions of his contemporary, the writer Emile Zola, whose dark and raw portrayal of Parisian middle class bears many similarities with Degas’ scenes. Characteristic of Zola’s writings – perhaps epitomized in his 1877 novel L’Assommoir, (The Dram Shop) – is the pseudoscientific interest in capturing the organic and bestial nature of human beings. And while Degas’ practice may be closer to realistic than naturalistic, his brothel girls appear as erotic and pervasive as Zola’s Nana.
Fascinated by the artist’s ability to recreate l’air de Paris, Zola is said to have based some of his own literary descriptions on works by the artist. Degas’ oil painting of a woman ironing dating from 1873, for instance, exhibited in the first room of the show, was praised by the French writer, who describes being mesmerized by the artist’s virtuosity in depicting the woman’ strength and muscular motion through the brusque use of paint. The painting is displayed next to a print of the same subject dating from 1874. In the latter, one immediately notes Degas’ clever echo of the monoprint technique – made by pressing an image down onto a hard plate – evoked by the movement of the iron being pressed onto the sheet. Interested in depicting the middle class workers absorbed in their daily activities, Degas’ laundress no doubt recalls those of Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, dating a century prior, who, liked Degas, found beauty in the worker’s everyday life.
Among the different characters, which populate Degas’ artistic world, bathers feature prominently. Their representation in an intimate setting is a clear evocation of the artist’s Dutch and Rococo influences, but most importantly reflect Degas’ admiration for Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) through the awkward and unusual poses in which we so often find his nudes. Representing the malleability of the flesh through the ink’s viscosity, these prints convey privacy in a visceral way, further recalling the naturalistic writings of Zola. But Degas takes realism to a new level by playing with perspectives and angles, in order to capture the full view of the human form. Series of prints demonstrate the artist’s interest in representing the many possibilities of a single form, and anticipate the advent of photography, which as the exhibition concludes, further informed Degas’ late practice.
With ‘A Strange New Beauty’, MoMA offers a rich and exciting entry into the world of an artist in constant need for novelty. By focusing the exhibition on his monotype prints, the show foregrounds the important influence the technique had on his overall practice, teaching him to always rework his images. A master of Realism, each example of Degas’ work is – as in nature – a unique result of chance. As quoted by Paul Valery at the end of the exhibition, Degas never “admitted that his work had reached the final stage”. From the addition of paint or pastel, to the interest in capturing different perspectives and angles of a room or a body, every one of Degas’ images is – like the faint traces of his fingerprints preserved in the dried inks – an individual and distinctive trace from the artist.
By Margaux Donnellier
Edgar Degas;: A Strange New Beauty, at MoMA, New York, March 26 – July 24 2016.