Every format reveals new opportunities to an artist. Using a range of mediums forces the artist to adjust creative tendencies, take risks and be inspired. Though best known for his paintings of ballerinas, Edgar Degas also crafted sculptures, prints and drawings. The current exhibition, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” at the Museum of Modern Art highlights Degas’ monotypes. They are on view for the first time in the U.S. in nearly 50 years. The show runs until July 24.
Monotyping is a variety of printmaking created by drawing in ink on a metal or glass plate, which is then run through a press. Monotyping was invented in 17th century and grew in popularity during the 20th century. In the mid-1870s, a friend and fellow French artist, Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, introduced Degas to the technique. Degas frequently inked the entire surface of a plate, then used brushes, rags and tools with fine points to create the subtractive image. The process has come to be known as the dark-field technique. With this form, Degas made detailed prints full of lines and subtle patterns to evoke space and movement. Additionally, Degas often applied or wiped away the ink by hand as evinced by leftover fingerprints and palm prints. Viewers can see marks of fingernails as well for fine detail. For some prints, Degas added color with pastels after the monotype dried. Those prints were typically his second or third prints, also know as pulls or ghost prints. These types of prints are created by running the same print through the press a second or third time. These pale ghost prints exemplify Degas’ care and interest in the process of monotyping.
The MoMA showcases about 120 rarely displayed monotypes by Degas. Degas made over 300 monotypes. The show makes a strong argument for monotyping’s influence on Degas as an artist of many mediums. Monotypes from Lepic and about 60 related paintings, drawings, pastels, sketchbooks and prints from Degas are included in the exhibit as well. Often, Degas used monotyping as a starting point. Then, he would paint the same image with oils on canvas. Experimentation beforehand with monotyping clearly informed Degas’ depictions of paused motion through the subtle or complex contortions of womens’ limbs and/or back. In his monotypes, Degas expanded his artistic sensibility by regularly mixing mediums and broadening his artistic subjects beyond the ones that he’s famous for, dancers and scenes of modern life.
The exhibit organizes Degas’ work chronologically and by his subjects. His inspirations reflect a looser, less conservative side of this French Impressionist. The exhibit eases the viewer into this collection by showing Degas’ monotypes of modern life. He highlights passersby on bustling city streets, women at leisure and women at work. Often, the faces are blurred, demonstrating Degas’ emphasis on the body’s movement for monotyping work. Reflective of the late-19th century cities benefiting from the recent advent of 24-hour lighting, Degas depicts the city as a constantly moving entity.
On small-scale plate, Degas portrays intimate scenes of women paused in motion at the ballet and in brothels. Though there’s questionable voyeurism, Degas used monotypes to create swirls of limbs and smudges of flurry and reflections. Whether his portrayals of the prostitutes in casual, sometimes joyous, sometimes dull and sometimes awkward instances are respectful humanizations or critical condemnations is unclear and still debated.
Even more intimate are the monotypes of female bathers. In all his monotypes of women, his gestural marks offer real-feeling views of the captured moments. Degas shows the women washing and grooming themselves in some of the most contorted, fascinating postures of all the women depicted throughout the exhibit.
From the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, Degas largely focused on the ink-based process. Briefly in the early 1890s, he switched from black printer’s ink to oil paint, which he applied directly to the plates. Following a break of several years and a trip through the Burgundy region of France, he made monotypes of abstract landscapes. These works are colorful and vague, lacking some of the concentrated energy of his other pieces. But they show a dreamlike whimsy and the same attention to detail. Under the pressure of the print, the paints run. Also, Degas’ use of rollers, cloths, fingerprints and coarse wiping add to the sense of artistic discovery. The lack of realism in these prints stands in stark opposition to his earlier pieces depicting urban life.
The exhibition concludes with side-by-side comparisons and progressions from monotypes to works of other mediums to demonstrate the strong influence that monotyping had on Degas. The practice of repetition and reworking in a variety of formats benefited his work in drawing and painting. Each iteration of a ballerina twisted in a unique pose offered something different for the viewer and about the woman. Additionally, colorful patterns in the background offer simultaneously subtle and bold contrasts to realistic forms. They show a union between the fantastical atmospheres from his landscapes and his more typical expressions.
Monotyping traditionally requires deliberate, careful effort. Meanwhile, Degas focuses on fluid, lively beings. The juxtaposition between the technique required by the medium and the energy from Degas and his subjects makes for intriguing works of art. The MoMA exhibit offers a wide, yet concise overview of Degas’ work in monotyping and his evolution and experimentation as an artist.