Sunday, 29 May 2016

Edgar Degas: monotypes at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to 24th July


Camille Pissarro once described the monotypes made by Edgar Degas in the 1870s as 'a bit slovenly and askew'. Even so, he would also perhaps have known that Degas was held in such high regard by his contemporaries in Paris that other customers would stand as he entered the café he used. Unlike any of the artists featured in the previous exhibition notice, Degas was a great modern master and his monotypes found him pushing the boundaries of modern graphic art about as far as it would go, hence Pissarro's comment.

Monotype essentially involves drawing in ink on a metal plate and passing that through a press. As a result only one image is normally possible. Easy enough to do, in the hands of Degas, the result were often astonishing. He has already made very striking etchings like the self-portrait of 1857, above and  and utterly magnificent drawings like the one below and I include these because there is clearly a relationship between all the different graphic art he made.

The show also includes other graphic work but as I haven't seen it, I can only give readers a hint at what they might see if they are fortunate enough to be in New York this spring and summer. Although he stands very much in the grand tradition of European art, his monotypes sometimes broke with tradition and added colour even if the tone is actually sepia. But that is hardly the point because it is the overall tone that counts.

Thanks also to Darrel Karl who has seen the show and has added a very good account of Degas' working methods in the Comments section.

1 comment:

  1. Gordon: I saw this show two weeks ago, and it was terrific. I whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone in or who'll be traveling to NYC this summer. The companion exhibition catalog "Degas: A Strange New Beauty" is also worth getting.

    I learned so much about Degas' process from the exhibition, and thought I thought I would share a few key points. Degas made his monotypes by two basic processes. In the light-field or additive method, the image is made by drawing with ink directly on the plate, usually with a brush, but sometimes with a sponge, a rag or his fingers. In the dark-field or subtractive method, ink is applied to the whole plate and the image is formed by selectively removing it from areas of the surface. Many of his monotypes in fact were made using both methods.

    After the monotype was printed, he would sometimes further enhance it by hand with pastel. He also used watercolor, charcoal, oil paint, gouache, and/or distemper on occasion.

    Degas would often pull a second, and sometimes a third, print (with diminishing image intensity) from the residual ink on the plate. These are called cognates or ghost prints. It was these cognates that particularly tended to be enhanced with pastel or other media. He could also produce a second state of the monotype by adding additional ink to the plate between pulls. And he could make a second print (a counterproof)from the surface of the first print while the ink of the first print was still wet.

    Degas' final series of monotypes were landscapes in oil colors (and some were further enhanced with pastel). Many depict scenes as seen by Degas on a moving train, and are among his most abstract works.

    The exhibition also features a number of Degas' paintings (which, like the monotypes, were drawn from a number of museums and private collections), and explains how his early work in montoypes influenced and informed the composition of his later paintings.