Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty

Maria Hassabi. PLASTIC. Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31 – March 1, 2015. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi. PLASTIC. Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31 – March 1, 2015. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

A major exhibition focusing on Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’s (1834–1917) extraordinary and rarely seen monotypes and their impact on his wider practice, on view March 26 through July 24, 2016. The first exhibition in the U.S. in nearly 50 years to examine these radical, innovative works—and MoMA’s first monographic exhibition of the artist—Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty will feature approximately 130 monotypes along with some 50 related works, including paintings, drawings, pastels, sketchbooks, and prints. The exhibition is organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, MoMA, with Richard Kendall, Curator-at-Large, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. MoMA is the sole venue for the exhibition.

A towering figure in 19th-century art, Degas is best known as a painter and chronicler of the ballet. Yet his work as a printmaker reveals the true extent of his restless creativity, as he mixed techniques with abandon in his studio and shared recipes with colleagues for producing unconventional effects. In the 1870s, during an era of enthusiasm for experimental printmaking, the artist Ludovic Lepic likely introduced Degas to the monotype process—drawing in black ink on a metal plate that was then run through a press, typically resulting in a single print. Captivated by the medium’s potential, Degas made more than 300 monotypes during two discrete bursts of activity, from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, and again during the early 1890s.

Taking the medium to new and radical heights, Degas abandoned the academic drawing style of his youth, inventing a new repertoire of mark-making that included wiping, scraping, scratching, fingerprinting, and rendering via removal. The resulting works are characterized by enigmatic and mutable forms, luminous passages emerging from deep blackness, and a heightened sense of tactility. The freedom Degas found in such techniques is an important theme of the exhibition, and the presentation will link his efforts in monotype—the way he moves the printer’s ink with ease across the slick metal plate, resulting in a more liberated form of description—to works in other mediums.

The exhibition surveys these technical innovations and the range of subject matter they explored, including scenes of modern life; harshly illuminated café singers; ballet dancers onstage, backstage, or in rehearsal; the life of the brothel; intimate moments at the bath; and landscapes. The presentation will run chronologically, beginning with experiments in printmaking in the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s, then focusing on the artist’s efforts with pigment and plate, and concluding with paintings, drawings, and pastels made at the end of his career, when the profound impact of the monotypes can be seen, especially in his ballerinas in motion and the
twisted and contorted bodies of bathers.

To illuminate how Degas saw iteration as an end in itself, key groupings will show how Degas traced, inverted, and recombined figures into different arrangements, applying pastel or charcoal on paper, or layering oil paint on canvas to further transform his subjects.

Reflecting a passionate spirit of invention and improvisation, a deep curiosity about the behavior of materials, a penetrating eye, an affinity for strategies of repetition and seriality, and an incisive understanding of the history of art, Degas’s efforts in monotype not only bridge the fin de siècle, but look forward to developments in the 20th century and beyond.

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