Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ahead of the Curve: Edgar Degas at the MoMA

The Ballet Master (Le Maître de ballet), by Edgar Degas, c. 1876. (White chalk or opaque watercolor over monotype on paper)

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty is a deeply intriguing exhibition of rarely seen work by the great 19th century artist, and among the best ever to explore the multifaceted Frenchman’s modernist tendencies. Better known for his pastel portraits of ballerinas, Degas is here presented as a maverick experimentalist working in the comparatively dark medium of monotype, a technique involving drawing in black ink on a metal plate that was run through a press to create a one-off print. Printmaking usually creates multiples of the same image. But Degas used monotyping to be unique. The technique allowed him to be spontaneous and inventive in creating single plates with a heightened tactility that made the paper it was made on come alive.

The Museum of Modern Art show, up until July 24, consists of approximately 120 monotypes organized by senior curator Jodi Hauptman with curatorial assistant Heidi Hirschl, senior conservator Karl Buchberg and independent Degas art historian Richard Kendall. Arranged chronologically, from the 1870s to the 1890s, they share gallery space with some 60 related works, including paintings, drawings, pastels, sketchbooks, prints and book illustrations. The range and breadth of work alone shows Degas to have been an exceedingly prolific and curious artist who transgressed boundaries while single-mindedly pursuing unorthodox subjects and artistic methods. People often lump Degas in with the Impressionists. But as this excellent exhibition makes clear he cannot be so easily defined. Degas outstripped his contemporaries by using liquid ink and not just colour to suggest the ambiguity of modern life. It’s a remarkable achievement, and thrilling to observe in a show that gives free rein to the artist’s fascination with pliable form.

Meticulously and thoroughly trained as a draughtsman and master painter, with monotyping Degas allowed himself to abandon the certainties of his honed craft in favour of mutable and enigmatic forms created using rags, tools and the muscular sweep of his own hand. Some of the work on display is imprinted with Degas’ own fingerprints and nail scratches. The MoMA offers up magnifying glasses for viewers to inspect the artist’s gestural handiwork up close. Other insights are gleaned besides, not the least being that Degas was an innovator in pursuit of unconventional subject matter and novel ways of rendering three-dimensional forms on the flat surface of the picture plane. As his ballet portraits amply demonstrate, Degas was a realist who presented the human body as weighed down by its own physicality. There is no flight of the spirit among his dancers. All are grounded to the matter of the earth by exertion and exhaustion. They twist, they torque, they tire. With the monotypes Degas approaches their technical prowess, achieving a level of virtuosity rooted in freedom of expression. The technique encourages him to be daring and bold as he renders through removal, wiping away ink to unleash images that describe not just dancers but passersby on the streets of Paris along with laundresses and brothel workers, all of them marked by his probing hand.

Landscape with Rocks (Paysage avec rochers), by Edgar Degas, 1892. (Pastel over monotype in oil on wove paper)

Degas came to monotyping through a friend, fellow French artist Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic. Together they made The Ballet Master (Le Maître de ballet), an 1876 work in which the likeness of the legendary dancer-turned teacher, Jules Perrot, emerges from dark to light, almost like an apparition. An example of the “dark field” or subtractive method, the image was created by selectively removing ink that had first been applied to a plate, covering it entirely. Degas created other prints this way, alternating his approach with the “light field” or additive method which saw him drawing an image directly on a plate, usually with a brush. Both methods exuded a handmade quality that underlined Degas’ preoccupation with process. When creating art, he liked getting his hands wet, so to speak. But this did not mean he could control the outcome. As the exhibition catalogue documents, Degas felt great trepidation whenever the monotype plate and paper through the press, uncertain about what would emerge at the other end. “His hands,” observed the poet Paul Valéry, were always “groping for form.”

To help himself along, Degas expanded his tool kit, adding brushes with hardened bristles and pointed instruments to create lined patterns. He also moved the ink around with his thumbs and palms to create texture and contour as seen in The Fireside, a print dating from 1880-85 that was one of Degas’ largest. The monotypes created in the 1890s after a few years’ hiatus are the result of a trip taken to Burgundy where he immersed himself in the countryside. These landscape paintings stand out and not just because Degas is more typically associated with urban life. The images show oil paint mixed in with the ink, an innovation Degas introduced to monotyping as part of ongoing experimentation with the technique. In the 1892 image, Landscape with Rocks (Paysage avec rochers), Degas also added pastel to highlight the geological formations.

Waiting for a Client, 1879. (Charcoal and pastel over monotype)
While fascinating, these mixed-medium monotypes are eclipsed by the ballet, brothel and bathers images in which loose lines and tonal contrasts suggestively and provocatively render the female form. Degas’ attention to detail is particularly acute in images that border on the pornographic.The Bidet (Le Bidet), a monotype from 1877-79, shows a woman squatting to clean herself while Room in a Brothel (Dans le salon d’une maison close), dating from the same period, shows another unselfconsciously scratching her buttocks. Prostitutes lounging naked on overstuffed furniture in Two Young Girls (Deux jeunes filles) and Waiting for a Client don’t try to entice; they look bored out of their minds. There is a decided absence of glamour. These portraits of life on the margins are as uncompromising as their subject matter.

Included is the group of monotypes Degas created for The Cardinal Family (La famille Cardinal), a collection of popular serialized stories by his friend, the ballet patron and author Ludovic Halévy, that translates into fictional terms the actual backstage goings-on at the Paris Opera involving mothers pimping their young daughters at the ballet. These proposed illustrations show Degas acutely observing his social milieu, and coming up on the side of the females caught up in the exchange of flesh and cash. The bodies are bent out of shape, distorted beyond any definition of the conventionally beautiful. But that doesn’t make them ugly. The French author and Degas contemporary, Joris-Karl Huysmans, is wrong when he describes these muscular monotypes as being the result of “an attentive cruelty, a patient hatred.” No. Degas, if he didn’t love the women in his images, definitely admired them. He respected their lives of labour and servitude. He did not pass judgment on them but rather allowed them to exist, stretched out before the male gaze, maybe, but uncowed by even the most trying of circumstances. His inherently dirty images, conceived in thick black ooze, show Degas aspiring to the physical expressiveness of the women in the monotypes. He uses both technique and subject matter to reach for something new.

It’s thrilling to see how he repeatedly returned to these experiments with ink and intimate observation to advance his art to the next level. The impact of the monotypes on Degas’ other work is made evident by the side-by-side presentation of the monotypes with some of his later paintings. Degas’ ability to evoke an image through manual manipulation informed his ballet oils and pastels on paper, among them 1887’s Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper (Danseuse rajustant son chausson). Movement fascinated Degas and he spent most of his career looking for ways to depict it through a single, static image. The monotypes allowed him a way in. They showed him how he could draw and dance at the same time, ahead of the curve.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.   

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