Degas as Modernist

John Haber
in New York City

Edgar Degas: Monoprints

Edgar Degas never thought of himself as an Impressionist. He hated the label, and he had little interest in painting en plein air. Yet his monoprints take him and his art everywhere.

They take him outdoors after all, to Vesuvius spouting fire and to mountains and vales much harder to identify—perhaps even unknown. They take him to his more familiar haunts indoors, among artists and dancers, strippers and bathers, working women and whores, clients and collectors (and try not to confuse the two). He catches them off-guard and behind, in the most delicate or awkward of poses. And then they move or he does, and he tries again. In every sense, he is catching them on the spot. Not bad for a medium that requires a studio with a press. Edgar Degas's Heads of a Man and Woman (British Museum, London, c. 1877–1880)

They take him centuries apart as well. The Museum of Modern Art labels him an observer of "modern life," and it devotes one section of a huge survey of his monoprints to just that. Yet it begins with his devotion to Rembrandt and includes scenes that look ahead to the Ashcan school, Surrealism, and even color-field painting. It calls the show "A Strange New Beauty," and it argues for his reinventing himself through the medium over the course of twenty years. It argues, too, for the lasting influence of these experiments on his pastels and paintings. With a show of work earlier in time than the museum's norm or even, arguably, its mission, it claims Degas for Modernism.

A print as experiment

A monoprint is always an experiment, not least for this artist. It leaves no lasting impression on a plate or block, unlike an etching or woodcut. It cannot produce much the same image over and over, unlike lithography with its greasy surface to control the "the Impressionist line." Degas would have applied ink to a zinc or copper plate and worked it as he pleased, with any tool at his command, including his bare hands. A press then transfers as much or as little of the ink to damp paper as it will, leaving the starting point for another experiment entirely—or nothing at all. It also leaves, as the name suggests, that one unique print.

For all that, he produced a good three hundred monoprints, starting in the 1870s, on top of his already prodigious output. And the Modern displays between a third and a half of them, mixed in with half again as many works in other media, including an entire sketchbook. Not many shows of works on paper would dare to fill one of the museum's sixth-floor galleries, but this one does. Nor did Degas leave well enough alone with a single print, challenging his art's claim to uniqueness. He sometimes ran the plate through for a second impression, or "cognate," relishing the bareness while filling it out with more, usually in pastel. The process suited both him and Paris, a city as work in progress and a city of darkness and light.

Just so you know, Charles Baudelaire took The Painter of Modern Life ("Le Peintre de la vie moderne") as the title for a book of essays that praised a new art as a harbinger of modernity. Its central essay on Constantin Guys, a war correspondent and illustrator, appeared in 1863, the very year that the Salon des Refusés caused a scandal with art that the official Salon had refused. As for The Painting of Modern Life, T. J. Clarke used that title to set Edouard Manet and others firmly in Paris, where Napoleon III chose Baron Haussman to design the city's plazas, parks, and boulevards. They created, Clarke argues, public spaces as a living theater for the bourgeoisie. For a Marxist like Clarke, that means not the middle class (as opposed, perhaps, to the one percent), but the people running the show. Yet Degas preferred the indoor spectacle of artists and outsiders in darkness and artificial light.

They appear right off in one his largest monoprints, from around 1876. Facing the exhibition's entrance, it shows dancers on the lip of a stage curving into the light, as if under their motion. Contrasting whites bring out the spotlit stage and the downy flutter of a ballerina's dress, and do not ask where ink or paper ends and the added chalk and watercolor begin. Fine lines cut into the black at left, behind the commanding ballet master, and even the artist's signature runs wild near the top. More ghostly whites pick out the front seats, but are they empty? How many dancers are there, and how many spectators?

Already one has so much of what monoprints mean to Degas. It shows the medium not for display or for sale, but for his private use in a very private world. It shows him thinking toward paintings and presentation drawings, but with other media on top of the ink casting their shadow on prints. It shows work on paper as a chance operation, for a virtuoso delighted to fight for control. It relies on repetition as a matter of theme and variations, but also as the inversion of half-hidden and wide-open spaces, in black and white. One can look at the needle-like traces, actually of hard bristles, and think of an etching—or look at the shadows and think splat.

The print also shows what he cares to represent. It represents the ballet master wrapped in silence and the motion of dancers to music. It represents the first from behind and the second exposed relentlessly to view. It represents men and women in a position of exploitation and the exploited, even in their art. It represents the doubling of dancers along with the doubling of the spectacle and its audience. It puts the spectator, too, on stage in front of a viewer like me or you.

A new realism

Degas loves them all—doubling, inversion, darkness, exposure, and the compulsion to look as well as to be seen. They sound downright Freudian, and he shows the underside of Paris as a nightmare or a dream. They sound modern, too, with Modernism's restless experiments already in view, but also matters of plain fact, from an artist who thought of himself as a realist, even when taking as his subject a spectacle. They put art front and center as the subject of art, but also as labor on behalf of others. They take one behind the scenes, far from the city's public spaces, to things that the public would just as soon forget. They manipulate both the subject of art and its point of view.

You may recognize them all, too, from the artist's paintings and pastels. Sure enough, MoMA progresses from street scenes through dancers in rehearsal, women ironing, nudes clambering in and out of bathtubs, brothels, and private clubs, arranged by subject. (He does not appear to have paid as much attention in monoprints to his jockeys and horses.) The show begins and ends, too, with other media. Monoprints may have spurred Degas to experiment, but he was already thinking aloud in other prints, and he kept thinking aloud in painting. He was also struggling with his instincts as a political conservative and a traditionalist in his art.

Degas always had two sides. He was born to a degree of wealth, but hardly to the aristocracy. He aspired to be a history painter and registered to copy art in the Louvre, but he disappointed his family by becoming an artist. He dressed well and mingled well, when he could be bothered to dress or to deal with others at all, and an exhibition has already looked at Degas as collector, but he preferred the company of artists. He may have scorned Impressionism, but he was close to Pierre-Auguste Renoir. A monoprint takes up the composition of Renoir's La Loge—but inverting Renoir's lush black oils to center on light piercing the theater's black.

His early prints already show his twin fascination with tradition and experiment. He portrays a master of the most exacting of print media, an engraver, but in an etching. A self-portrait comes in two states, one bare and precise, the other with that splat. Of course, no one reworked a print as often or as drastically as Rembrandt, and four large, horizontal prints come very close to a harbor or river view by the Dutch artist. For Rembrandt, though, scrubbing down a plate and then working it again were a search for something like truth, something that he could never attain to his satisfaction, while Degas accepts each impression as it comes and then moves on. He also just happens to update the foreground for the refuse of a modern city.

Next come his principal subjects. As curators, Jodi Hauptman with Karl Buchbert and Heidi Hirschl group them apart but in a single room, as one vast pageant of modern life. It is also an unrelenting one. Degas does venture out of doors, sketching an artist friend (the one who introduced him to monotypes, in fact) in successive poses like stop-action photography. In a monoprint, dots crossing a woman's face on the bus could stand for a veil, sheer motion, or the medium. Mostly, though, he has gone behind the scenes for a franker perspective and a greater clarity or darkness.

A photo by Degas pairs Renoir with another friend, Stéphane Mallarmé, whose words supply the exhibition's title. For what it is worth, the Impressionist looks more than half asleep, while the poet is dapper and alert. Elsewhere, though, Degas is not content to move among equals. Women ironing are engaged not in housework but in industry. Whores celebrate their madam and cater to clients, and you may account however you like for his presence or yours. The old realist, who took up monoprints only in his forties, is engaged in a new realism.

Facing his double

Did monoprints change the course of his art? One can already glimpse the show's last room, putting that to the test. First, though, two rooms grow stranger still. Both take one in their own way behind the scenes, on either side of a corridor. One looks to shadowy interiors of unspoken purposes. The other heads outdoors to all-encompassing spaces and to color.

MoMA calls the first his "dark-field" technique, although the term applies to the vast majority of his monoprints as well. Degas lays down ink and then wipes or scratches it away. Here the darkness deepens as if to swallow the light. When light comes, though, it comes with a vengeance, like the glare of a fireplace reflecting off women and, I am guessing, a mirror above. The dark side applies, too, to the room's subjects, including that fiery interior, a woman on a chamber pot, and a face buried in a woman's breast. John Sloan, George Bellows, and Alfred Stieglitz in America, here we come.

If that room teeters on the edge of realism and Surrealism, the other steps past the edge and into abstraction. For landscapes, Impressionism taught, color was everything, and here monoprints exchange their blackness for colored ink or even bright oils. Working in the early 1890s, Degas smears colors into one another, with the fluidity of watercolor. Pink cliffs and a pale sky loom over the green of what could be a grassy plain, the sea, or a curtain of light hiding them all. Added pastel in one print threatens to enrich or to obliterate it. The prints approach at once the fire of J. M. W. Turner, Turner's whaling pictures, and the open spaces of Helen Frankenthaler.

Can the final room live up to any of this? In all the obvious ways, yes. Paintings and pastels have much the same off-center curves and the same deliberate "unfinish." They, too, come in multiple versions of the same scene, with multiple versions of the actors within. They have the same awkward thrust of bodies at rest and in motion, with every pause only a momentary rest. They have the same wavering artist's hands and firm specks of light.

Yet they also change the equation because so little lies hidden. Their color and larger scale project a greater brightness. They also make clearer the unidealized outlines of human flesh by closing in on it. Here a woman has to work to climb into a tub for the relief of a bath. After the sheer flash of prints, the larger work looks downright monumental. And the monumentality hurts.

Degas abandoned monoprints at some point in the 1890s, twenty years before his death. He also, like the show, considered different media together all along, with no special priority to any one. MoMA may not prove its point, but it helps recover the strangeness of what has long since become the stuff of posters, thanks to their "nice" media like pastels and "nice" subjects like ballet. It also places Degas closer to the origins of Modernism, with the same blurring of the lines between finished and unfinished—the subject of the opening show at the Met Breuer. As with Paul Cézanne, repetition has psychological as well as artistic overtones. In doubling in monoprints, Degas had to face his double.

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"Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through July 14, 2016. Related reviews look at Degas as collector and "The Unfinished Print." As a follow-up, a separate article gives the rough text of an interview for which I sat in May on the subject of the exhibition.


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