MoMA show of Edgar Degas prints illustrates his love for experimenting

Impressionist found his ‘perfect medium’ in the monotype, a drawing that’s printed, using them to document social change in 19th century Paris and hone his art. New York show brings together 120

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 5:00pm

Every picture tells a story – but that’s not the way Edgar Degas looked at it. The Impressionist painter, known mainly for his pictures of ballerinas, was more interested in the form of his subjects, and in working out ways to convey the way they moved, than their lives and experiences.

This desire for experimentation takes centre stage in “Edgar Degas: A Strange Beauty”, an exhibition of the artist’s little-seen monotypes on show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until July 24. (A monotype is essentially a hybrid of drawing and printing – it’s a drawing that’s printed. )

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Degas, as with most of the Impressionists, is an interesting example of how times can smooth out the rough edges of history. Today, it wouldn’t be unusual to see a commercial print of one of his ballerina paintings used ornamentally, perhaps adorning a kitchen wall. But back in the 19th century, Impressionism was a form of experimental art, derided by the critics and hated by a public who thought the indistinct images were made by artists who couldn’t paint properly. “The show is all about experimentation,” says Jodi Hauptman, MoMA’s senior curator, department of arts and prints. “We’re focusing on the monotypes as a kind of case study for experimentation. Degas had an incredible influence on the 20th century, and part of that was down to the way he experimented. “He was mainly interested in what materials could do, and art for him was an adventure, an experiment. He always took things as far as they could go.”

Degas made more than 300 monotypes from the 1870s to the late 1890s, and 120 of these rarely exhibited prints, borrowed from collectors all over the world, make up the MoMA show.

All good artists reflect their times, consciously or unconsciously, and Degas was no different. He was interested in showing the changes that were occurring in Paris in the late 1800s. The notion of leisure time for those other than the idle rich was relatively new, and his pictures showed the entertainers – café singers and dancers – who were fulfilling this social need. Advances like electrical power, too, were a novelty, and artists wanted to find ways of depicting how these new technologies were being used. New visions often demand new artistic materials, and that’s where, for Degas, the monotype came in.

“He was always looking for the correct medium to show these new subjects,” says Hauptman. “Degas was interested in the world around him. But how do you depict that? Monotype served those purposes for him. It was the perfect medium for him.”

Degas’ subjects included street scenes such as Avenue With Trees (1876), as well as prints of ballet rehearsals, and the interiors of the legalised brothels which he frequented (he did not record the details of his activities within).

There are also the cafés he liked to visit after dinner, to “hear idiotic songs … and other absurd nonsense”, as his brother René put it. Degas also made landscapes, including some factory scenes which make use of oil paint instead of ink. These are unexpected, as landscapes are not generally thought of as part of Degas’ oeuvre.

“The factory smokestacks were an emblem of the changing nature of the urban environment in the 19th century,” says Hauptman. “If you think of smoke wafting across the sky, it’s similar to the way that the ink crosses the plate of a monotype. Degas loved to make connections between his subject and his medium.”

Some of the landscapes, such as Twilight in the Pyrenees (1890), look like they come from a later time. “They allude to the natural world but they also verge on abstraction. They still seem radical and experimental for 1890,” says Hauptman.

There are, of course, monotypes of ballet dancers, such as The Dance Lesson (1876). They have a kinetic quality that he could only strive for in his paintings.

“Degas wanted to depict movement,” says Hauptman. “With the monotypes of ballerinas, he finally found the way to depict this motion. He didn’t really manage that in his paintings, but because of the gestural possibilities of working in monotype, he was able to express that.”

Degas immersed himself in producing his monotypes. “[He] is no longer a friend, a man, an artist! He’s a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink, and plate and man are flattened together by his printing press whose mechanism has swallowed him completely!” wrote his friend, printmaker Marcellin Desboutin, in 1876.

A final gallery shows how Degas’ enthusiastic experiences working with monotype influenced his paintings. The artist abandoned monotype at the end of the 1890s, but its processes continued to inform his work.

An understanding of the value of spontaneity was an important step forward for Degas’ art, says Hauptman. “When you’re making a monotype, you can change the image right up to the point that you put it to the press. If you don’t like it, you can wipe it clean and start again.

“There is a spontaneity and malleability to producing a monotype – it’s a looser way of making art. Degas found that very important. The process really changed the way he worked forever,” says Hauptman.