Tag: factory smoke by edgar degas

The Strange Side of Edgar Degas

Share this artwork:

Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c 1876

A new exhibition of rare Edgar Degas monotypes reveals a more daring and experimental side to the artist.

Ballet Scene, 1879

Edgar Degas is celebrated for his impressionistic studies of ballet dancers, but a new exhibition will reveal lesser-known work. The Museum of Modern Art’s Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty will be the first time his monotypes have gone on display in the US in more than 50 years. And while it will feature some familiar subjects, viewers may be surprised to find depictions of brothels and industrialised landscapes hanging on MoMA’s walls. “The exhibition really focuses on Degas’ experimentation, trying to understand the leaps he made in terms of his approach and his technical innovations,” curator Jodi Hauptman tells BBC Culture. “It argues that it’s in his monotypes where he takes the most risk, and where he is the most modern.”

Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c 1876

“A monotype is where the artist draws on a metal plate and then sandwiches that metal piece with a damp piece of paper before running through a printing press,” Hauptman explains. While other forms of printmaking involve carving into wood or incising into a metal plate, in monotype the artist simply draws on the plate, allowing changes to be made until the very last moment. Hauptman thinks this encouraged a kind of “spontaneity” in Degas. “It encouraged him to be more free and liberated with his drawing,” she says. “It’s very different from the precise drawing he was trained in as a young artist.”

Ballet Scene, 1879

Autumn Landscape, 1890

Hauptman believes Degas used monotype as a way of “capturing modern life”, and it is in his series of landscapes where he is arguably at his most modern. “For their time, they are really radical as they verge on abstraction,” she explains. In Autumn Landscape, Degas tried to capture the view from a moving train. “You have to think what it would have felt like in the 19th Century for someone who’d only ever moved at the speed of a horse to then move at the speed of a train,” she continues.

Heads of a Man and a Woman, c 1877–80

Movement is a consistent theme in Degas’ work, but particularly in his monotypes. It appears again here, where he has smeared the faces of his subjects. “It’s as if the artist is only catching a glimpse of them as he races by,” Hauptman suggests. This monotype offers a glimpse into what it must have felt like for Degas, living in the rapidly expanding Paris of the 1870s. In many ways, monotype was the perfect medium to, as Hauptman says, “describe the changing nature of contemporary urban life,” due to its fluidity.

Factory Smoke, 1877-79

A Strange New Beauty is MoMA’s first exhibition of these works. It features 120 monotypes along with another 60 related pieces, including paintings, drawings, pastels and sketchbooks. “It’s not that Degas invented monotype, but he just embraced it with such enthusiasm and took it as far as it can go,” Hauptman notes. In Factory Smoke, Degas manipulated the ink to illustrate the movement of smoke across the skies of Paris. “There is a relationship between the way the smoke moves across the plate and how the ink also would have done, so there’s a beautiful meeting there.”

Waiting for the Client, 1879

Degas doesn’t depict prostitutes in any other medium but monotype. Hauptman finds his representation of the brothel and its inhabitants particularly interesting, as they are often cropped or appear on the edge of the work. “There is an emptiness at the centre, and you get sense of the brothel being a place of constant exchange,” she explains. The client is even more peripheral in this work – you can just about see him on the far left edge of the portrait. “The client is often depicted as a little hesitant, while the women are together as a group. I think that says something about that relationship,” she says.

Frieze of Dancers, c 1895

Degas made monotypes in two bursts of activity – in the mid-1870s until the mid-1880s, before returning to it the following decade, using oil paint instead of black printer’s ink. “That’s an important innovation as oil paint responds in a different kind of way to the press,” Hauptman says. According to the curator, Frieze of Dancers is one of the most important works to feature in the exhibition, as it encapsulates the idea of “the multiple and variation in a single work”. Does the painting feature four dancers, three dancers, or just one? That is for the viewer to decide, but Hauptman suggests that you can see it as a single dancer in four different moments. “With that in mind, we might relate the work to contemporary time motion studies of the photographers Muybridge and Marey, who we know Degas was interested in,” she says. As a result, the painting takes on a filmstrip-like quality that alludes to cinema.

The Fireside, c 1880-85

There are two kinds of monotype in Degas’s work: light-field and dark-field. When working with the former, he would draw on a plate just as he would on paper, but the latter was a subtractive process. The result is figures that appear to be emerging out of the darkness, as seen here, in The Fireside.

Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind, c 1877–79

While a monotype only produces one image, Degas would often run the plate a second time using whatever ink was left. This created a ghost image, which he used as a ‘tonal map’ for a new work. Using pastels, Degas would often create something completely new with the second image. “In those pairs you see something that is the same and different. You see the ways he saw possibilities of making more than one form,” Hauptman says. “For Degas, he always saw possibility.”

Tags : , , , , , ,