“A Strange New Beauty”: Edgar Degas at the MoMA

Art in Review, Museum

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” at the Museum of Modern Art, presents a little-known aspect of this protean master: his unsung, strikingly innovative monotypes. As they occupy a strange, almost phantasmal territory between painting and printmaking, Degas’ monotypes show a marvel of economy where welters of dark smudges and smears somehow cohere into graceful portraits. 

The exhibition assembles about 120 monotypes and 60 related prints, drawings, pastels, and paintings, each its own flash into the richly theatrical scenes of Degas’ Paris. Despite the various media, his works have one common thread: they are each multilayered and reworked, palpable examinations into the process of creation. This essentia reveals Degas, by definition, as a true modernist painter of the 19th Century. (A groundbreaking title to give to a recognized founder of the Impressionist movement.)

‘Getting into Bed’ (‘Le Coucher’) c. 1880-85, Monotype on paper.

Look closely at the detail cropping and you can see his fingerprints! This is evidence of a tension at the heart of the monotype process: while a monotype is made by transferring a drawing on a metal plate by mechanical means – establishing a distance between creation and result – the visible fingerprints are a reminder of the artist’s hand, the role of touch in the work’s making.

With their often severe visual style and casual use of graphic nudity, they seem to lack the ‘quasi-religious and chaste’ quality that, for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, set Degas’ prostitutes apart from those of other contemporary artists; indeed Degas’ brother René allegedly destroyed another seventy monotypes upon the artist’s death as he found the content obscene. Beyond their graphic character, however, the monotypes contain many of Degas’ artistic trademarks, opening them to interpretation both as erotic fantasies and as studies in tonal contrast whose controversial content is incidental to their stylistic ingenuity. In the monotypes, subject matter and qualities of execution refuse to align: privilege the other and they look very much like artistic expression.” They were truly, as Degas’ close friend and contemporary poet Stephane Mallarmé described them, “a strange new beauty.”

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Degas uses pastel sparingly here. Affording the metal base its full artistic merit as a source of contrast, he delicately illuminates the dancer from below. Black striations of wiped ink render the tulle skirt and paper in the bouquet starkly gestural.The bright footlights above the orchestra accentuate her dainty features and movement as she takes her final bow. This moment, frozen on his monotype, is an instantaneous snippet with an enduring quality, owing to the patience of Degas’ intense meditation. It would seem that, at the very least, Degas gave a scribbling ovation that night.

His works are at once familiar, even oneiric in atmosphere. The pure spontaneity of the ‘eau-forte mobile’ printing was to Degas redolent of drawing, as it proposed the process as the product. Degas created these tirelessly, and clearly with a painterly finesse rather than the mechanical hand of a printmaker. From a scratched canvas to denote a chignon to the zaftig silhouettes and colorful soirées he dappled in pastel, we see the inimitable, bawdy, theatrical, and ultimately timeless beauty of late-19th Century Paris through his eyes.

Through July 24th.

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