By Qianqian Li, Contributing Writer
All artists dabble printmaking at sometime in their careers, but it’s safe to say (though not very well-known) that Edgar Degas was immersed in the medium. In MoMA’s new exhibit, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty”, senior curator Jodi Hauptman, senior conservator Karl Buchberg, and curatorial assistant Heidi Hirschl bring together 120 monotypes, almost 60 related works and three sketchbooks from Degas’s innovative exploration of printmaking techniques in the late 19th century.
The exhibit’s first gallery displays small-scale monotypes of simple landscapes and dainty portraits, in Head of a Man and Woman, Degas purposely blurs the faces of a well-dressed couple to implicate flitting visions on the street typical of fast-paced urban life. In other portraits, he boldly mixed different printmaking techniques to render complex lighting situations.
Degas carries his characteristic keen sense of subject into printmaking, although the purpose of his experimentation in this new medium is to capture the dramatic essence of the modern experience, the center of these images are nevertheless people in time. Degas depicts brothel scenes exclusively in monotype, while his contemporaries depicted prostitutes with immaculate bodies or stiff poses, Degas’ prostitutes embody neither characteristic, yet their vulgarity in manner and poise is communicated completely and perfectly through the less-than-ideal forms. The most daring group of Degas’s prints is devoted to the depiction of women in bathing scenes. Rising out of the background, these bodies are in contorted positions rendered from strange angles and the blurred distinction of form and background viscerally express privacy in urban life.
But it’s evident that Degas couldn’t stay away from pastel, he started enhancing the monochromatic monotypes with colored pastel, first tentatively, as seen in Ballet Master, light smudges of light blue pastel are added to the dynamic impression. Later, just as he had mixed different printing techniques, Degas started using subtractive monotype technique to create a dramatic light situation such as that of a stage, then used pastel to embellish details, such as the face and costume of the dancer.
Degas makes a stronger connection with his viewer through his prints. In the 1890’s Degas became inspired by scenery from his trip to Burgundy and worked indefatigably to create images of moving landscape by using colored oil paints to print monotypes. Because of the thin and runny nature of oil, most of these prints turned out to be completely abstract patches of color and texture, some of these pieces are enhanced by pastels so that shapes became recognizable forms, but a large part of these landscapes, such as Ochre Hill, were left the way they are, like prototypes of Abstract Expressionist art. Overall, the exhibit coherently defines not only how these prints lend clarity and purpose to his artistic endeavors, but Degas’ early place in modern art history. Sure to be surprising, not to be missed—this exhibit brings to light an overlooked Degas and sets a new standard for historical shows.
“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view March 26 through July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art; 212-708-9400, moma.org