The Strangeness of Degas

John Haber
in New York City

Edgar Degas: An Interview

As a follow-up to my review of Edgar Degas monoprints at MoMA, I sat for an interview with TRT World–Istanbul, Turkey's new English language broadcaster. In practice, the interview started late and ran shorter, but allow me to share with you as well what we had to leave out.

Thanks so much for having me, and you're absolutely right that for Edgar Degas the overriding question is modern life. Ironically for a man who set out to become a history painter, no one else did more to make this a respectable subject for art—and no one did more to create an image of Paris and of modern life that is with us to this day. That said, what is so startling about his monoprints is their greater strangeness and variety.

It turns out that Degas, who worked in Paris and hated the label Impressionist, also depicted mountain landscapes of formidable heights and apocalyptic bursts of color. It turns out that he could pull off entirely credible port scenes in a style after Rembrandt. Yet he could also look ahead to twentieth-century realism, like the underside of New York for the Ashcan School, or even abstraction. He penetrated not just cafés and the ballet, but also a brothel, where hookers were throwing a surprise party for their madam. You leave the show wondering: is there nowhere he would not go for his art?

Actually, MoMA would like you to see Degas monoprints in the broader context of his art. It opens with other print media, so that you can see why he turned to monoprints—with an assist from a friend, Ludovic Lepic. It concludes with paintings, to make the case for the influence of his monoprints on his best-known work. It may even have a point. Yet the show's title is excellent, and the strangeness only grows over the course of the exhibition.

There is no getting around the medium's strangeness. You add ink to a plate, run it through a press, and take your chances. No wonder monoprints often appeal to artists who lurk in the shadows, even today. They appeal to Jasper Johns, the American artist, whose one real subject is his studio but who appears in his work only as plaster casts and shadows. They appeal to David Hammons, the African American artist notorious for being hard to interview, hard to photograph, and hard to control. They follow Degas himself behind the scenes and into the shadows.

Degas takes you backstage, with the theater director a harsh master, and back to the brothel along with clients. You have to question who is observing whom and who is exploiting whom. You have to question, too, what he is doing there in the first place—and what are you.

So let's talk technique. There are two ways to go about making a monoprint. One is to transfer ink to a plate, using a fine brush or perhaps the very object that you wish to represent. When you are satisfied, you can then run it through a press. The other is to cover a plate with ink, then rub or scrape it away, again till you are satisfied—using a needle, a rag, or even your bare hands. And Degas used them all.

The first method is said to be additive, the second subtractive or dark field, because it leaves a broader darkness. Degas was by no means the first to use it either. In fact, the very first stand-alone monoprints are subtractive—in Genoa by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, a contemporary of Rembrandt. Rather, his innovation was all but to eradicate the distinction between the methods. He ventures into private rooms of strange goings-on, with more and more impenetrable darkness and more and more fiery lights.

Monoprints deserve their name, because of their uniqueness. Once you run a plate through the press, much if not all the ink is gone from the plate for good. You cannot add ink for a second impression and expect it to be like the first, because nothing controls where the ink will fall but the artist's hand. There are no grooves to capture the ink, as with an etching or engraving. There is no grease to repel ink, as with a lithograph. No wonder you may hear a monoprint described as a "variable etching."

None of that discouraged Degas. Once he had a print, he had no qualms about adding to it with pen or white chalk. And once he had a used plate, he had no qualms about adding more ink and trying again. He could print successive images side by side, in the manner of stop-action photography, much like his multiple studies of the dance or of his friend Ludovic. He could also use successive images from slightly different angles to focus attention on the observer's shifting point of view—or to underscore a ballerina's awkwardness.

He could use the contrast between successive prints to create emotional resonance as well. In the first, you might see all his refinement and all his skill. And then the second image lands on paper with gaps everywhere and a splat. To return where we began, they are like alternate sides of Paris and modern life.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

I sat for this interview on May 25, 2016. "Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through July 14, 2016, and is the subject of a separate review.

 

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