Everyone knows Degas’ pastel dancers, all frothy and soft and suffused with light, and MoMA could have put together a kind of greatest hits exhibition and brought in smiling crowds, but curator Jodi Hauptman and conservator Karl Buchberg, along with Heidi Hirschl, a curatorial assistant, and Richard Kendall, an independent curator, decided to focus the exhibition instead on a man, a moment and a medium.
The final decades of the 19th century, the period covered in the exhibition, brought tremendous changes. The machine age joined the Gilded Age, the Victorian era and France’s Belle Époque. The Franco-Prussian war had ended, as had our Civil War. Peace and prosperity, along with advancing technology, were altering the landscape. The light bulb, the phonograph and the telephone were all invented within a few years of each other. Jules Verne was kindling dreams with fantastical stories promising the impossible.
All these advances — cities lit up at night, speed and frenetic energy, the broadening of what could be imagined — led to the birth of modernism. The advent of the camera had made it possible to freeze the moment. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was among the first to try to capture that moment with all the velocity and energy it contained.
Academically trained and reluctant to be labeled, Degas was an artist whose work focused largely on the figure. Though he created and exhibited alongside the Impressionists, “Ingres,” said Jodi Hauptman, “was his big influence above all. But this is about defying Ingres.” Radically opposing Ingres’ cool precision and perfection are Degas’ monotypes.
“We believe that this is where Degas is at his most modern,” Hauptman said of the monotypes. “His work is at its most radical, most willing to defy convention and break the rules because he’s reaching for something new — new means and new subjects. He was thinking ‘Paris is changing. How do I depict it? What am I going to use?’ And monotype really served his purpose.”
Monotype is not the most familiar art form. The exhibition includes a short video that makes wonderfully clear what it is and how it’s done. There’s a “dark field” and “light field” style. Both entail laying ink on a metal plate, and that was the crucial element for Degas. Whether by inking an entire surface and then pulling, scratching or brushing color away to create areas of light, or starting with a blank sheet and then applying shadows and lines, monotypes allowed Degas to crystallize a fleeting moment.
“There are certain technical things that he gets from monotype. One is a looseness and ability to express gesture,” Hauptman explained. “If you think about the plate being a slick surface and the ink being viscous, when you draw across it, you can really move ... . Other kinds of drawing have a resist.” Blurry faces, hazy gaslights, an uncertain separation of dark and light, flatness and more than just hints at abstraction can be seen across the roughly 120 monotypes and 60 related works in the exhibition.
In several, including “Woman in a Bathtub,” after the first inked or painted metal sheet was rolled through the press onto a damp, absorptive sheet of paper, Degas would run a second page. That piece would be fainter, since much of the ink had previously been transferred. Degas would then go over that second impression with pastels.
“It gave him a kind of tonal map to work with” Hauptman said, “so the pastel almost sits on top. It served his purpose to forward what he was making and also to explore ideas about repetition and transformation which is one of the themes in this exhibition ... Something that’s both the same and different, and that fueled the idea that art was not about finish. It was about iteration. It was about making another, and another, and another, without hierarchy, and they’re all equally valid, and all equally interesting.”
Rooms of largely black and white images of singers under stage lights, laundresses at ironing boards, women in brothels and men in top hats hint at Parisian life in the late 1800s. A gallery filled with highly stylized landscapes that look decades more modern than their Impressionist contemporaries and another filled with starkly lit interiors recalling Rembrandt’s etchings describe how broad Degas’ vision was.
The final gallery is the dessert: a dazzling array of dancers in pink and blue, tangerine and white. Here, after the monotypes and having witnessed what Degas’s friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, described as “a strange new beauty,” are the artist’s ballerinas in all their delicacy and poise in pastel and paint. But we come to them after understanding that Degas admitted that choosing dancers was just “a pretext for rendering movement.”
“It’s good to show a different side of an artist that we know,” said Hauptman, who last teamed up with Buchberg on MoMA’s Matisse Cut-Outs show. “At every moment, that’s what the avant-garde is about — saying no to the past and reaching for something new, and that’s what Degas is trying to do here.”