Exhibition of the Month – Edgar Degas’ Modern Beauty

What: Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty
When: March 26 – July 24, 2016
Where: MoMA
Admission: Free with CUNY ID

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (ca 1874). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (ca 1874). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Edgar Degas is best known for his paintings and pastels of ballet dancers, polo ponies, and bathing women. Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, currently on view at MoMA, shows a less familiar side of Degas, one that few people have seen before.

This exhibition focuses on Degas’ monotypes. A monotype is a printing process that involves manipulating ink on a metal plate, resulting in a single, unique impression, much unlike the mass-production possible with etchings or engravings. This exhibition opens with prints by Ludovic Napoléon Lepic, who in the mid-1870s first introduced Degas to the technique. The exhibition surveys Degas’ monotypes in a variety of genres, including landscapes and figurative works, up through Degas’ last monotype experiments from the early 1890s. The exhibition closes with a room devoted to Degas’ later work in other media, including oils, pastels, and charcoals, to examine how his monotype experiments informed the later development of his style.

Monotypes achieve effects impossible in other media. They are spontaneous and fleeting, qualities that recall photography, but without the reproducibility of a photographic negative. Degas smudged the ink with all manner of tools, including rags, brushes, and even his own fingers. Indeed, in certain cloudy skies or textured draperies, it is just possible to make out Degas’ own fingerprints. MoMA provides magnifying glasses so that visitors can see more clearly these monotypes’ fine visual textures.

This exhibition argues that these works are some of the most modern of Degas’ oeuvre. This extensive survey invites viewers to discover what exactly makes these works modern, and then to ponder what modernity means for the visual arts in general. Is “modernity” the hastily smudged, blurred faces of Degas’ city dwellers, who so poignantly capture the anonymity and alienation of modern urban life? Or is “modernity” the entirely depopulated landscapes, whose colorful bands of hills and valleys dissolve into abstract washes of pigment? How about the small print of four plumes of smoke rising into the sky, implying a modern factory below (Fumées d’usines, 1877-79)?

Altogether, this brilliant exhibition is an opportunity to immerse oneself in late nineteenth-century Paris and France, seen through Degas’ fleeting, printed impressions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.