April 24, 2016

"A Strange New Beauty" - The Monotypes of Edgar Degas at MoMA

Asked to name the leaders of the Impressionist art movement and I'll bet Edgar Degas would be on most people's list.  But while Degas was certainly a founding member of the school, he ultimately rejected the movement and its practitioners finding it too controversial and outrageous.  The idea of painting en plein air was an anathema to Degas who believed that artists should comport themselves decorously in public and lead private lives of solitude.

Another difference between Degas and the Impressionists was his fascination with artistic mediums other than oil paintings.  He was a master sculptor with an enormous output of dancers and horses molded in bronze, he was a genius with pastel on paper, and, as a new exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art now shows, he was obsessed with monotype prints.
"The Two Connoisseurs (Les Deux Amateurs)", c. 1880
Monotype on paper mounted on board

Introduced to the technique by his friend the artist Ludovic Lepic, Degas took to the process like the proverbial duck to water.  He became infatuated with the medium's qualities of spontaneity and malleability as well as the anticipation of not knowing exactly what the final product would look like until the very end.

The monotype is a very specific printing method, unlike any of the usual intaglio, relief or planographic processes we are most familiar with.  By its very definition, a monotype is unique, one single print produced by drawing with ink, or in some cases oil paint, directly onto a metal plate, covering the plate with damp paper and running it through a press.  A combination of drawing and printmaking, a monotype cannot be reproduced over and over as the image has not been incised into the plate but must be re-drawn in ink each time.

The category of monotype prints can be further broken down into "dark field" and "light field" and Degas was a practitioner of both.  In a dark field monotype, a clean metal plate is covered with a layer of black ink which the artist then removes to create an image.  Using a brush, or fingers, or cloth or a sponge, the ink is drawn into, smeared, dabbed or scraped to create areas of light that are the image.

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

As you probably already guessed, a light field monotype is just the opposite.  Starting with a clean metal plate, the printers ink is applied, again using brushes, sponges, fingers or cloth, to create the image.  It is a process of adding, as opposed to subtracting, to draw the picture.

"Café-Concert Singer (Chanteuse de café-concert)", c. 1877
Monotype on paper mounted on board

Degas worked in monotypes intensively in two bursts, from Lepic's introduction in the mid 1870s for about a decade, and again in the 1890s.  He approached the process enthusiastically, as a painter rather than a print-maker, intrigued by its possibilities for abstraction and depicting motion.  He worked in traditional black printers ink...

"The Bath (La Toilette [Le Bain])", c. 1880-85
Monotype on paper

He also experimented with color oil paint, often to capture the effect of viewing a landscape from a moving train...

 "Autumn Landscape (L'Estérel)", 1890
Monotype in oil on paper

Occasionally Degas managed to do both a black and white and a color impression, a very rare achievement called a "cognate".  As I mentioned, a monotype is a unique print, but sometimes there is enough ink left on the plate to run it though the press a second time creating another impression less rich and more ghostly than the first.  Degas would then use pastel to color the second print, highlighting some areas and covering others so that the two works, side by side, are theoretically the same but actually quite different.

"Café Singer (Chanteuse du café-concert)" 1877-1878
Monotype on paper

"Café Singer (Chanteuse du café-concert)" 1877-1878
Pastel over monotype on paper

No show on Degas would be complete without a few examples of pure pastels and oil paintings of ballerinas and the final gallery of this MoMA exhibition provides quite a few lovely examples.  But for me these beloved images were superfluous after the revelation of his marvelous monotype prints.  "A Strange New Beauty" is on view until July 24, 2016.

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