“I saw you standing there
I saw your long, saw your long hair
Opened up my eyes, baby
You made me realize all I want to do now
Is look at you”*
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) didn’t see the world as you or I do. Many of us can’t see beyond the phones in our face to really see most of what is right in front of us (watch out for that bike), and remember even less of it. Not Degas.
I see you. Self Portrait, Etching and drypoint, 1857, aged 23.
Edgar Degas, seemingly, saw everything. Especially when it came to women. He even saw things that I’m not sure were intended to be seen let alone depicted. For that reason, I’ve considered him the “king of the hidden moment.” Some of those moments he chose to remember, and immortalize, were scandalous when he first exhibited them, 125 year later, they may still give us pause. He was a voyeur in the original sense of the word. meaning “one who looks,” but I am sometimes left to wonder if he was in the contemporary sense, as well- a “peeping tom.” Yet, he does it in ways that we can’t take our own eyes off of, “blinding us with science”- his talent and genius.
I see you, too. Perhaps, only Degas would think of immortalizing this awkward moment. But, why? (Pastels applied to a Monotype, the core medium of Moma’s show.)
He, thereby, makes us accessories after the fact in his voyeurism. Before the fact, the question is there to be asked- Why this moment? While I choose to respect the privacy he long sought and stay away from looking into the reasons he felt “the artist must live alone” (which he was his whole life) for insights to his work, I have come to blame it on that eye that never closes, and that sees all. While we admire his work, rightly among the greats, there are times when I wonder if having that switch in his brain that said, “Um? No.” might have been a good thing- once in a while.
It’s too late now. No one who owns one of those “questionable subjects” Degas depicted is relegating it to the trash bin. Most of them are in museums, or most likely will be one day. At the moment, 120 of Degas’s works are on view in “Degas: A Different Beauty,” the summer blockbuster at Moma though July 24, a show centered around his rarely seen Monotypes, which are usually tucked away because many are too light sensitive for permanent display. Still they are Degas, and the more Degas I see, regardless of the medium he’s using, the more I’m struck by the moments he chooses. Of course, beyond “why?” there’s the “what does the work mean” question.
But, let’s back up. First…what’s a Monotype?
It’s a medium that combines drawing and printmaking that results in a one-of-a-kind work, hence “mono.” It’s created either by adding ink to a copper plate with a brush, or almost anything else, which is called the “Light Field” kind of Monotype, or selectively removing ink from the plate covered with it, again using a brush, etc., which is called the “Dark Field” kind of Monotype. The plate is sandwiched with a sheet a paper and then run through a press resulting in a print. Degas, of course, did both kinds, but as the show wonderfully shows us, he didn’t stop there.
One of Degass’s first Monotypes- “The Ballet Master” Dark Field, 1876.
In addition to this never closing eye, Degas had an incessantly exploratory nature and they combined in an eternally restless Artist, one who was, also, constantly searching for new outlets for his creativity. That led him to the Monotype, an infrequently seen medium in Art, at the suggestion of his friend, the Artist and Monotypist Ludovic Napoleon Lepic in the mid 1870’s. Later, it would lead him to photography (1895). Degas threw himself into the Monotype with typical intensity. He learned the basics, and then pushed them. Soon, he was doing things like making a second print from the plate, which would naturally be faded as the image degrades after most of the ink had been spent on that first impression, to which he’d add Pastels on top of the black and white image creating shockingly “different” works from the two tone original. Some of these colored images are beautifully displayed side by side with the black & white first image, the pair are called “Cognates.”
Cognates. “Woman in a Bathtub Sponging Her Leg” 1880-85. Monotype, and with pastels (right).
But, be warned- this isn’t “Degas 101,” or “Degas’s Greatest Hits.” It’s not even “Degas’s B-Sides”. It’s borderline “The Unknown Degas” (for the casual Degas lover), but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s “bottom of the barrel” Degas (whatever that is. If it exists, I’ll take it!). It means there is so much great Degas that little known works like his Monotypes can hold their own front and center in a big show, even without support from the inclusion of some much more famous paintings But let’s not let the medium be the message here. For me, at least, it’s “still” Degas. What one sees in his paintings, pastels, sculptures and etchings, is also to be seen in his monotypes. All his “big themes” are here, showing they never were far from his mind, regardless of medium, and giving the casual Degas fan plenty to enjoy, while they see something new. They include-
Beauty. In ANY sense of the word. Pastel over Monotype.
Portraits, and even a Self Portrait or two
Night Life and City Scenes
Yes. This is a Landscape by Degas. Pastel over Monotype in Oil, 1890
And? There are also landscapes, something that most Degasians may not be as familiar with. A whole room of them that Degas called “imaginary landscapes,” inspired by a trip through Burgundy in 1890. They are shockingly different for Degas, who, much like me, preferred the City and found no end of inspiration therein, anticipating the edgy, quasi-abstract late work of Monet (i.e. the Waterlilies, etc) some 20 years later, and the Abstractionists over the rest of the 20th Century.
I left out the Brothel Scenes. Well? That’s what the section card says they are. They sure don’t look like scenes from any brothel I’ve ever heard about. (Sorry. I cant’ say I’ve actually been in one, so I’m speaking third-hand.) Of all of these, the Brothel Scenes strike me as being the most intimate, especially because the Bathers are almost uniformly very dark works, where much is hidden in shadow or under water. The Bather rising from her tub, above, is in the Brothel section, and is typical of how well lit these scenes are. Which is good because it also serves to highlight some of the questionable scenes in this section, like the image of a woman either about to use a bidet or rising from one. ?
Then again, it also means there are those priceless moments of ballet dancers and ballet students caught unawares in beautiful, unique poses. Families doing the most mundane of things line one wall, while “everyday scenes” of a different nature abut them in an adjoining wall of brothel scenes. The bathers get the privacy of a room to themselves, as do the landscapes, and the dancers are pretty much everywhere else. Along the way, we see two Self Portraits (one, above), a series of Rembrandtian etching “states” and a somewhat odd scene of smoke stacks, looking somewhat lost, on a wall by itself, heightening it’s “out of place here” feeling.
The “Greatest Hits” collection of Degas themes notwithstanding, there is much to see here, and much that requires close scrutiny. The gorgeous strokes of pastels that seem to have been applied at once both spontaneously and effortlessly, all the while, sublimely, particularly struck me. It’s also fascinating to see how he’ll take a black and white monotype and colorize it. Having the very rare opportunity to see both, side by side is, for me, one of the highlights of this show- The effect is not like seeing a colorized black and white movie. Degas makes it something completely else. As a result, I was quite surprised to see him quoted on a sign to the effect that if it were up to him, he’d work only in black and white, but the public wants color. I, for one, are thankful we have both. While I would never dare to argue his preferences, I also have to say- What a loss to the world it would have been had he never worked in color! I came away with a new appreciation of Degas, the colorist, both in how he applies color to a given composition, (which can be quite bold, like a lightning bolt, as in the dancer, above, but also for his palette. If you get to see this show, or the very good catalog for it, be sure to look for these instances where you can see the Cognates, so you can make up your own mind. Here is one-
Bather. Monotype. First impression. A closer view of the Cognates, above.
Bather. Pastel over Monotype. (Second impression)
Then there’s the question of meaning…
“…what is fermenting in that head is frightening.” Rene Degas (his brother), in a letter, April, 1864.
Degas does not surrender his secrets easily. Anyone who has seen his early masterpiece, “Interior,” 1868-9, can attest to the mystery his works hold. Some see a rape in it, others see the depiction of a scene in Zola’s then recently published “Madeleine Ferat.” Personally? Having seen it in Philadelphia first hand, I see different things in it each time I see it, even now in photos. Beyond it’s “meaning,” more importantly, right now, I see it as a precursor of Edward Hopper. It’s a classic example of what Jean Sutherland Boggs, in the catalog for a much earlier show at The Met, succinctly says- “The longer one reflects on the work of Edgar Degas, the more elusive it seems.” She continues, however, throwing us a lifeline of insight “…some key to the work, if not necessarily to the man, may be found in his fascination with equilibrium[ 4. “Degas 1834-1917,” Metropolitan Museum, 1988, p. 23].” And, yes, beyond the voyeurism, which may take some time to see past, we do see that in the bathing piece above. Though it’s not to be seen in the physical sense in all his work (though it may be on the psychologoclgical sense) it becomes fascinating to look for- The dancers on one foot or bent over, or at the barre, and on and on. Degas is fascinated by man’s relationship to the ground, the earth, and with equilibrium.
Equilibrium, X 4. “Frieze of Dancers,” Oil on Canvas. 4 views of the same dancer?
To research this further, I went to The Met’s Degas Sculpture Room. Notice how every single work depicts balance & equilibrium.
“Degas is an anarchist. But, in Art.” Camille Pissarro (Artist/Anarchist/Friend of Degas), in a letter.
This show is risky. Degas was exploring in his monotypes. The “beauty” on hand is sometimes “different,” in the sense that it’s, at times, not the beauty Degas is most revered for and that the masses of Art lovers, myself included, associate him with.
One of the most haunting, and “different,” Degas I’ve yet seen. Monotype.
It seems to me that when “looking for meaning” or trying to reconcile all of this, it pays to look back at Degas’s past. Degas didn’t start out a revolutionary. His early work showed “the classical beginnings, without any gesture of revolt” It was in the 1860’s that this would change. His anarchy lies in subverting the past/his past while he reinvents it, and seeks to add to or change his own working processes. Degas spent long hours copying in the Louvre and then in Italy for 3 years. Among the works he copied were an etching after a Michelangelo original of a man scrambling over a riverbank, i.e. climbing out of the water. Once you look for it, this image of a nude entering, or leaving, the water is one that reappears in his work- there’s a gorgeous pastel of one at The Met, here. Therefore, I think the image of the Bather Exiting the Bathtub, way up above, is, partially, another example of that interest, partially due to his interest in “equilibrium,” and partly sensual/erotic. It’s taking the classical idea of Michelangelo and turning it on it’s head, as an anarchist would be expected to do.
Anarchist Degas then shocked society in 1888 when he showed his nude drawings in an exhibition arranged by no less than Theo Van Gogh, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother. Vincent Van Gogh was quite taken with Degas and was one of the few Artists around capable of understanding, and admiring, his isolation and celibacy. His comments on Degas & women in his Art are fascinating. Up until Degas, the nude was something drawn from models, who were aware of what was taking place and were party to it, even if they were depicted at their “toilette”, which goes back to the 1500’s in Art. With Degas you often have the feeling that neither of these “norms” were true, leaving us with that sense of looking through a door that has been cracked open. I haven’t been able to find out what the subjects thought of these works. Voyeur? Rule breaking visual anarchist? Though he, apparently, lived a sexless life, Degas created his fantasies in his Art (for what purpose I know not), and a number of them are on view here. He created them for himself, only showing the 9 he allowed Theo to exhibit in 1888 during his lifetime, and he kept them until he died. Why? I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. They subsequently came into Museums and private collections when his estate was sold after his death in 1918.
It speaks volume that he was so willing to continue to explore when he had discovered things, like the paintings of dancers, he could have continued to do forever and receive endless acclaim for. It takes a little bit of that same faith to follow him on his exploratory path to get to the gems that are not often seen due to their fragility. They are here, though the show includes works that are not. Some may be characterized as experiments, while others are byproducts of Degas’s refining his process. They are all Degas, though, and as such are precious, edifying and definitely worth seeing. Moma is to be congratulated for taking the chance of going against the grain of what people know and expect from a Degas show, and for doing it without the “crutch” of including a number of their own very familiar paintings. Here we have Degas the artist who was restlessly exploring new mediums and new techniques, while adding his own steps to the processes he had been taught by others. In that sense, “Degas: A Different Beauty” is a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the greatest Artists of the past 150 years.
“When it happened
Something snapped inside
Made me want to hide
All alone on my own
All alone on my own”*
For me, this makes Degas a prototypical “Modern Artist” in every sense of the term, as much as anyone working today. Degas would be right at home in our time, with the expanded capabilities Artists have, pushing the possibilities of Photoshop, the iPad, video, or you name it, as he would have been at home, most likely, at ANY time in history. In that sense, like his great influence and forbearer, Rembrandt, and a great Artist he influenced, Picasso, Edgar Degas was an eternally “Modern Artist.”
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Looking At You” by the MC5, written by Tom Robinson from their Lp “Back In the USA.” Published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Warner Chappell Music Inc. Degas’s brother lived “back in the USA” and he actually spent fruitful time in New Orleans in 1872.
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