That Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty is the first exhibition the Museum of Modern Art has devoted to Degas is hard to believe. His late work is in many ways no less modern than that of Monet, whose Waterlilies murals are a foundation of the MoMA collection. That having been said, the current show, if long overdue, offers a well curated slice from the master’s oeuvre. The theme is monotype and the armature is the subject matter that Degas explored in various media, but the boldface subtext is the smudged distinction between drawing and painting. This was no small feat, given Degas’s respect for Ingres and his beginnings as a draftsman in the classical tradition, and it illuminates his desire to go beyond adherence to conventional approaches. Arguably the greatest draftsman of his time, there was nothing fastidious in his thinking. Degas couldn’t wait to find new ways to get his hands dirty.
His individuality was evident early, in portrait etchings that refer to the influence of Rembrandt without being bound by a youthful desire to emulate. By the late 1870s Degas was experimenting with lithography, drypoint and aquatint, and his prints became more painterly. A working partnership with Ludovic Lepic was, perhaps, seminal, though one must believe that Degas would have found his way to monotype by hook or crook. Lepic wasn’t an important artist, but he was a restless eccentric, and Degas was interested in his friend’s recent printmaking explorations using ink and rags. Probably his first monotype, installed at the entrance of the MoMA show, was the large The Ballet Master (c. 1874), which is signed by both artists.
It would be convenient to say that Degas’s innovations in printmaking followed a clear chronological layout, but until Picasso he was the least doctrinaire of masters (the show is ordered as much by subject as it is by chronology). Thus, The Ballet Master (c. 1874) isn’t a pure monotype, since it includes additions of either opaque watercolor or white chalk that cloud rather than clarify the image. Soon enough he got the hang of the process, and was off and running.
In unadulterated form, monotype is practiced by painting with ink on a metal or glass plate, with the image transferred to paper while still wet. Degas used both the additive and subtractive processes—painting straight on a blank plate or covering it first with ink, then wiping out the light areas—and often mixed the two approaches. The Two Connoisseurs (c. 1880) appears to have been done primarily via the first process, with the figures and background elements painted directly on a dry plate, yet there are also numerous passages within dark fields where ink was partially wiped away, probably with a rag. The contours of the main gentleman’s ear were delineated by scraping into ink with a fine pointed object, while the front edge of his face was reinforced with a single brushstroke of black pigment. The image, typically urbane in characterization and handling, is a minor masterpiece.
Woman Reclining on Her Bed (c. 1885) was done in the subtractive manner—the process will be familiar to those of us who studied at the Art Students League in Frank Reilly-inspired classes—with an ink-covered plate from which Degas wiped out lighter passages, the brightest being an oil lamp in the lower left-hand corner of the sheet. The figure itself is half-swallowed in shadow, the swipes of a cloth across her forms suggesting both her sculptural mass and her indolence. Here, too, Degas incised lines into the ink with a sharp instrument, to pull certain contours out from the velvety shadows.
For an earlier work, The Name Day of the Madam (1876–77), Degas used a more complex technique of pastel applied on top of the printed monotype (It’s worth digressing to note that the literature on Degas’s monotypes focuses to an unusual degree on the technical aspect, presumably because the media is not popularly understood by non-artists, and because Degas was its foremost innovator). The Name Day is one of a series of monotypes by Degas depicting the general lassitude of life in a brothel, one of the very few subjects that the artist did not explicitly attempt in any other media—insofar as he devoted much attention to the subjects of ballet, bathers, and the brothel, the distinctions between the genres blur like printer’s ink. As Degas chronicled in other works, Parisian ballet “rats” often depended on older sugar daddies to bankroll their careers, and the identities of his women at their baths or in their beds are ambiguous enough that some are traditionally classified within the brothel series. Such are the reasons, buttressed by a prevalently voyeuristic point-of-view, that Degas has often been accused of misogyny. It was an attitude which his most gifted protégé, the English artist Walter Sickert, took to such extremes, hiring prostitutes to pose for him in hotel rooms, that he’s been mistakenly proposed as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders.
Degas’s acid was constrained by a bourgeoisie background, and if it reached an apogee of sorts in his first batch of monotypes from the late 1870s and early 1880s, it dispersed entirely in the dreamy landscape monotypes of a decade later—I first saw these at the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit of Degas’s landscapes in the mid-1990s, and have never wavered in thinking them the most beautiful works ever made in this medium. Spurred by a carriage trip through the French countryside in 1890, Degas executed in the studio a series of monotypes that were yet more aggressively experimental, covering a plate with splotches of color, then overlaying pastel atop the painted print, sometimes using tinted paper as a ground (see Landscape (1892) and Landscape with Rocky Cliffs (1890). His beloved line was diffused in a series of abstractions that valued evocativeness over topographical description. Although his traveling companion attested to the images’ literalness as evidence of Degas’s acute visual memory, the artist referred to them as “paysages imaginaires.” It is likely that both views are correct, with the resulting works constituting an uncharacteristically romantic rebuttal—but a rebuttal nonetheless—to his colleagues’ devotion to plein-air painting.
Nearly eighty-seven years after its inception, MoMA has found a rationale for honoring Degas. He was, in addition to many other things, the greatest innovator and creative force in the medium of monotype. The current exhibition is enriched with drawings and paintings that correspond to the show’s theme, and besides, there needn’t be a good excuse to include pastels like Dancers Resting (c. 1898), a late work in which one may be forgiven for temporary confusion regarding which leg corresponds to which dancer. It’s a blast of color grafted upon an aging draftsman’s linear framework, and ought to be a reminder that Degas’s genius is reason enough for MoMA to revisit this modern artist, before another eighty-seven years have passed.
Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through July 24, 2016.