Unlike his colleagues, the artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas has always worn the mantle of Impressionism uneasily. You’d be hard-pressed, for example, to find a portrait, much less a photograph, of Degas painting outdoors. Though he depicted figures and animals, particularly horses, in landscape settings, he worked from either drawings or memory, rather than propping a canvas on a portable easel in, say, a garden or at the racetrack and executing a picture on the spot with the latest oil colors.
But Degas was an inveterate experimenter. Besides painting, he sculpted, drew in a variety of mediums, made prints, took photographs, and wrote poetry. He excelled at them all. “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” a large survey now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, features 175 works, including 120 monotypes, a type of print that is one of the most radical as well as least-known aspects of this reticent Frenchman’s oeuvre. It’s been almost 50 years since the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard brought together as substantial a group of Degas’s monotypes. As it is, though MoMA opened its doors in 1929, this is the first time the museum is devoting a solo show to Degas.
Because these are late 19th-century prints—primarily made during two periods, the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, and the early 1890s—they are small sized. This engenders a more intimate experience than usual. You’ll be drawn closer to the walls of the galleries to view dancers pirouetting, café singers performing, prostitutes waiting for clients, women reading, bathers drying themselves with towels, and landscapes that verge on abstraction. Most were made with black ink; a few are so pale they are gray. A number the artist colored by hand with pastel. The show is a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
MoMA senior curator Jodi Hauptman, who organized the show with MoMA senior conservator Karl Buchberg and curatorial assistant Heidi Hirschl, recently explained that, with monotype, “You can make two things that are the same but different.” Hauptman further added that this process is a hybrid of both drawing and printmaking.
Degas worked every which way he could. Mainly, he drew with black ink on a metal plate, or else spread the viscous black ink across a plate and then removed what he didn’t need by, as Hauptman notes in the excellent exhibition catalogue, “wiping, dabbing, fingerprinting, scratching, and incising.” He worked rapidly to avoid having the ink dry too soon, and without the leisure of having models. After drawing, he passed the plate and a wet sheet of paper through a printing press, sometimes one he himself owned. Ordinarily, only one print results from this method. But Degas often pulled two, the second being a pale, ghost-like image. Degas colored many of these cognates—the term for the later print—with pastel. On these, he freely repositioned arms and legs, redecorated the walls of various rooms, and redesigned objects like tubs and ceiling fixtures.
You’ll find fewer details recorded in Degas’s monotypes than in his paintings or other works on paper. Monotypes engender broader, less-refined treatments. To contemporary eyes, they look more modern. Rather than portraying figures with facial features, the artist often represented the backs of many heads turned outward. Sometimes the poses of various women, especially the nudes, are downright awkward. The colored bands Degas wrapped around the waists of so many of his ballerinas executed in oils and pastels are conspicuously absent. Instead, images seem to emerge from shadows. At times, you’ll think you’re looking at an uncanny memory. There also is a sense of time passing. Ballerinas appear to move. Smoke rises skyward. Looking through the haze, you might be reminded of Robert Irwin’s many works created with scrims more than a century later.
At MoMA, a number of first runs and cognates are displayed side by side. Both the deep-black ones as well as those that are light gray tend to possess only the most basic, elemental forms, while those with figures and objects that Degas colored with pastel are more elegant. You’ll find this to be the case whether you’re looking at ballet dancers, café singers, or women who are getting into bed, soaking in a bathtub, or reclining before they go to sleep. Anyone who ever enjoyed children’s magazine features that asked them to discover what’s wrong with a picture will be in heaven.
When Degas returned to the making of monotypes during the early 1890s, he created entrancing landscapes. At MoMA, 27 of them—all executed in color—occupy their own room. A group of them are a response to the fields and hills the artist observed while riding on a train, a relatively new mode of transportation. “I stood at the door of the railway carriage, and looked around vaguely,” the artist told a friend, who recorded his remarks. “That gave me the idea of doing the landscapes.” Keeping this in mind, we must ask, was Degas more interested in making works that verged on abstraction or in communicating something more temporal and spatial, say, the swooshing of time and place passing?
Once we raise this question, we need to consider whether we’ve transformed Degas into a reluctant modernist. After all, our eyes have been conditioned to look at his art in ways that are different than those experienced by his contemporaries. This is clear in the closing section of the show, which has a splendid selection of late oil paintings, pastels, and charcoal drawings. You see that the artist was extending the parameters of realism rather than pursuing the conventions of Impressionism.
Then, as you backtrack through the show—its entrance is also its exit—may I suggest you look again at the monotypes from circa 1876 to ’77 that served as proposed illustrations for The Cardinal Family, short stories written by Degas’s friend Ludovic Halévy? You may have given them just a cursory glance when you walked past them the first time. They are tempered more by a specific (and unfamiliar) narrative than his usual form language of so many of his other monotypes. Look for the print in which Halévy, the actual author, engages in rapt conversation with Madame Cardinal, the mother of his two young protagonists. Clearly Degas mixed fact with fiction, a quality that permeates many of his monotypes. Unlike a novelist, the Impressionist achieved this pictorially.