Friday, March 25, 2016

Jill Krementz covers Edgar Degas at MoMA

Self-Portrait, 1857

Edgar Degas was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France. His father, Auguste, was a banker, and his mother, Celestine, was an American from New Orleans. Their family were members of the middle class with nobler pretensions. For many years, the Degas family spelled their name "de Gas"; the preposition "de" suggesting a land-owning aristocratic background which they did not actually have. As an adult, Edgar Degas reverted back to the original spelling.
Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty
March 26-July 24, 2016
MoMA-6th floor

This is MoMA's first monographic exhibition of the artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917). On display in five galleries are approximately 120 monotypes along with some 60 related works, including paintings, drawings, pastels, sketchbooks, and prints.

Dancer, c. 1876-77
Pastel and opaque
watercolor over
monotype on paper
A towering figure in 19th-century art, Degas is best known as a painter and chronicler of the ballet. Yet his work as a printmaker reveals the true extent of his restless creativity, as he mixed techniques with abandon in his studio.

In his monotypes, Degas is at his most modern, capturing the spirit of urban life in his landscapes and depicting the body in daring ways — women bathing or climbing into bed at the end of the day — and in his intimate brothel portraits.

Of course there are many examples of the ballet dancers for which he is best known. Whether focused on method or theme, Degas's insistent searching resulted in what the poet Stéphane Mallarmé saw as "a strange new beauty" hence the title of the show.

The show has been organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints; with Karl Buchberg, Senior Conservator, along with Heidi Hirschl, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints and Richard Kendall, independent art historian and curator. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints.

Ms. Hauptman told me that she had been thinking about the show for five years and worked on it for two. "It was the way that Degas experimented that drew me to him. I hope people will leave this exhibition with an image of Degas with ink up to his elbows."
Senior Conservator Karl Buchberg with The Ballet Master; c. 1876

When I asked Mr. Buchberg where he would like me to take his picture, he chose this setting: "This is the first Degas monotype which Degas did with Ludovic Lepic who taught him the monotype technique."

When you look closely at upper left hand corner of this painting you will see that it is signed by both Degas and Lepic.
As you enter the exhibition, in the first gallery, there is a short video filmed at Brooklyn's Jungle Press Editions — a must see for those (like me) — unfamiliar with the process of making monotypes.
Two frames from the video, but you need to see the whole thing!
Pulling the monotype from the inked plate.
Heidi Hirschl, curatorial assistant of Drawing and Prints, with Laura Neufeld, a paper conservator. "We're Carl and Jodi's protégés — the Junior Varsity team."

They are holding magnifying glasses which are available in each of the five galleries.
And yes, I'm full of suggestions ... but you'll see a lot more if you bring your Inspector Maigret talents to this exhibition. It's fun finding all of Degas's fingerprints on the various monotypes. Your very own treasure hunt.
In addition to monotypes, Degas did a a selection of etchings with variable inking on paper produced with Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic.

Sara Beth Walsh, Senior Publicist. Behind her are two monotypes on paper, c. 1880: Moonrise and Willow Trees.
Sketchbook, c. 1880; Pencil, charcoal and blue chalk on paper.
Two Studies for Music Hall Singers, c. 1878-80; pastel and charcoal on gray paper

"It is essential," Degas argued "to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times."

Such close attention to a form — studying it from a variety of viewpoints or multiplying and varying it — is common to Degas's approach in drawing and printmaking. When drawing, he returned to his chosen subjects and made small changes from one work to the next, testing his own practice.

Here, following his own advice, Degas used pastel and charcoal to depict the same subject in two different ways, each raising her shoulders and grasping her hands to suggest a song imbued with emotion.

Young Woman in a Café,
c. 1877; Pastel over monotype on paper

Degas employed pastel over monotype to describe the details of this café scene: a gaudy dress, a powdered face, gloved hands shuffling cards. He left some areas of the composition with only printers' ink so that its black and gray tones form part of the composition. The subject hints at issues of social propriety, as a respectable bourgeois woman probably would not have presented herself this way or have been seen in public alone.
Woman in Her Bath, Sponging Her Leg, c. 1880-1885; Pastel over monotype on paper
After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself), c. 1896; Oil on canvas

In this unorthodox treatment of the body, Degas expanded on his monotypes of bathing women from more than a decade earlier, which are also characterized by a near-monochrome palette, areas without medium, loose and painterly brush work, and the contortion of the female form.

Probably taking his composition from a photograph of a model, Degas reduced her shape to its essence, focusing on the elongated curve of her spine as it drapes over the back of a chair. One of Degas's contemporaries described this as an "acrobatic activity of violent effort."
After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, 1895-1900; Oil on canvas
Woman Going to Bed, c. 1880-1883; Monotype on paper Bedtime, c. 1883; Pastel over monotype on paper

These two works display Degas's interest in the Rococo, a style that emerged in the eighteenth century, first in Italy and then in France.

Characterized by playful and imaginative subject matter, ornament, asymmetry, curving lines, and delicate colors, the style was revived in France in the nineteenth century, in part as a reaction to expanding industrialization.

Degas's own interest was more personal: at around the time he completed these works, he wrote, "In growing old, everything transports me to the Rococo of sixty years ago." His monotype emphasizes the contrast of darks and lights in the engraving, while the pastelized version alludes to the colors of the original canvas.
Bedtime, 1880-85; Monotype on paper

Getting Up: Woman Putting on Her Stockings,
c. 1880-1885; Monotype on paper

Whether the works debase their subjects or reveal something observed, Degas accessed and expressed privacy in a visceral way. Insulated and isolated from the outside world, in secluded and dim spaces, these figures are fully absorbed in their reading, washing, and readying for bed.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Stéphane Mallarmé
December 1895; Gelatin silver print

In the mid-1890s, Degas took up photography, which became another outlet for his experimentation with process and materials.

As was true for his printmaking, Degas was less interested in photography's reproductive potential than in the ways it could produce variations.

Bathing his sitters—usually friends—in darkness interrupted by a single light source, he made photographs that echo the character of his dark field monotypes: both present strong contrasts of illumination and shadow, collapse figure into ground, and use cropping to dynamic effect.

This photograph documents the coming together of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Degas himself, who appears reflected in the mirror, behind the camera. Mallarmé's eyes are closed—perhaps in defense against the many lamps needed to make the image—and Degas's head evaporates into a luminous cloud, his eyes replaced by the prominent lens of his camera.
Installation view of landscapes mostly made with a combination of pastel over monotypes. That's my assistant Maria Escalante.
Whether using printers' inks or oil paints, Degas balanced control against accident. Such acceptance of happenstance is an inherent part of the transfer process of printmaking, in which there is always an element of surprise in what comes out of the press.

Here, a large amount of emerald oil paint was applied to the plate; when it was printed, as the paper and plate were tightly sandwiched by the rollers, it spread across the composition and over the plate mark.

While this green area seems to have little narrative function in the composition, Degas carefully depicted the trees to the right, a hillside, and a grassy bank in the distance by manipulating a thin layer of gray-green oil paint with a brush and creating texture with his fingers and hands.

Landscape with Rocky Cliffs, 1890; Pastel over monotype in oil on paper
Pathway in a Field, 1890; Pastel over monotype in oil on paper
River Banks, 1890; Pastel over monotype in oil on paper
Barbara Hoffman, Culture Editor of The New York Post, who commented, "Degas did landscapes? Who knew?"
The titles of both works are the same: Three Studies of Ludovic Halévy Standing, c. 1876-1877; Charcoal on paper

The work on the right is a counterproof of the one on the left.

To make this pair, Degas first drew the half profile of his friend, the writer Ludovic Halévy, in charcoal three times, slightly shifting the angle of his body, the bend of his head, and the position of his right arm; the result offers a vivid sense of Halévy in motion, like frames in a film strip.

For the counterproof, Degas placed a damp sheet of paper over the drawing and applied pressure—he likely ran the two together through a printing press—to transfer the charcoal from one sheet to the other, using the first drawing like a monotype plate.

The counterproof is a mirror image of the original, but it is lighter in tone since only a fraction of the medium was transferred during printing. Used since the Renaissance to "flip" compositions, counterproofing gave Degas another means to explore possible iterations of a single form.
Four billows of smoke waft into the sky and merge into a single sooty cloud. Though three of them lack a clear origin, the source of the fourth, at right, appears in the composition as a slim chimney, its top sharply defined by a dark triangle of ink.

Around May 1879, Degas listed possible subjects for works of art on the theme of smoke: "people's smoke, from pipes, cigarettes, cigars; smoke of locomotives, tall chimneys, factories, steamboats, etc.; smoke confined in the space under bridges; steam."

In this monotype he realized one of these themes, creating an emblem of modern urban industrialization, while also making an analogy between subject and medium: the smoke's vaporous drift across the sky is an equivalent to the ink's flow across the plate.
The exhibition includes a group of illustrations for The Cardinal Family, a collection of stories about the amorous adventures of two young ballerinas, written by Degas's friend Ludovic Halévy.

Seen together, these monotypes show Degas's ever-active eye shifting from long views to close-ups, focusing on the empty centers of waiting rooms, and pressing close to the dancers as if taking on the vantage point of their male admirers.

Although Degas's illustrations were not used for the book's initial publication, they demonstrate that narrative was a springboard for experimentation.
Much of the action takes place backstage or in the theater's wings, and Degas depicts the flurry and flux of backstage spaces by deploying gestural marks and smudges to suggest hustle and bustle, reflections in mirrors, and kaleidoscopic swirls of legs and arms, and by cropping bodies with the plate's edge to imply motion.
An entire wall is devoted to Degas's monotypes (including several owned by Pablo Picasso) depicting prostitutes in brothel interiors.

For Degas, monotype served this subject in key ways: his gestural marks convey a space of flux and financial exchange, and his free brushwork encouraged caricature. The addition of pastel on some monotypes allowed Degas to further describe these scenes.

Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind, c. 1877-1879; Pastel over monotype on paper
Resting on the Bed, c. 1877-1879;
Monotype on paper
The Client, 1879; Monotype on paper
Two Young Girls, c. 1877-1879
Monotype on China paper
Waiting for the Client, c. 1877-1879
Pastel over monotype on paper, mounted on paper
The Bath, 1879-1883
Monotype on paper
The Bidet, c. 1877-1879
Monotype on paper
The Name Day of the Madam, c. 1877-1879; Pastel over monotype on paper.

This raucous celebration for a brothel "Madame" is Degas's largest monotype in this group.

The scene is thought to show a celebration on the occasion of a "name day," the feast day of the saint associated with a given name. Naked except for colored stockings and shoes, brothel workers revel with their madame, who is depicted in a long black gown.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir singled out this work for praise, observing that "any treatment of such subjects is likely to be pornographic ... It took Degas to give to The Name Day of the Madam an air of joyfulness and at the same time the greatness of an Egyptian bas-relief." Whether Degas humanizes and honors these women, as Renoir believed, or deplores them for their indecent poses remains a question.
Finally ... the dancers!

Degas's sketchbooks are on display throughout the galleries.
Two Dancers Resting, c. 1890-1905
Charcoal on paper
Dancer Holding a Fan, c. 1890
Charcoal on paper mounted on board
Two Dancers, 1905
Charcoal and pastel on transparentized paper
Two Dancers, c. 1898
Pastel on eight sheets of pierced paper

Pink Dancer, 1896
Pastel on paper

It was because of longtime love of Degas's portrayal of the dance world that I began photographing young students at the School of American Ballet. This experience resulted in my book A Very Young Dancer published by Knopf in 1976.
Dancers Resting, c. 1898; Pastel on five sheets of pieced paper

Dancer Holding a Fan, c. 1890; Charcoal on paper mounted on board
Three Dancers, 1900-1905; Charcoal and pastel on tracing paper
The title for both these pastels is the same: Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper, 1887; Pastel on paper.

Degas's pervasive interest in exploring a subject multiple times and with different mediums can be seen in these two drawings.

In these two pastels Degas shaped the arc of the ballerinas' bodies, evoking the texture and luminosity of their skin, and creating the almost architectural structure of their tutus.
Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper, c. 1887; Pastel on paper
Peter Schjeldahl, who covers art for The New Yorker, is one of my favorite art critics.

On the wall behind him: Frieze of Dancers, c. 1895; Oil on canvas

And in his hand, a magnifying glass.
Study of a ballet dancer (recto), c. 1873
Oil with opaque watercolor on prepared pink paper

This double-sided work represents a point of contact between the monotype and Degas's other drawing practices.

Using the slick surface of the brightly hued pink paper almost like a printing plate, Degas applied ink in bold, loose strokes.

The gestural brushwork emphasizes the movement of the dancer's foot as well as a virtuoso depiction of shadow on one side ...
... and the painstaking actions of the seamstresses on the floor.
Following the press preview there was a conversation between MoMA's Director Glenn Lowry and Jodi Hauptman on stage in the Titus Theater.

Always a pleasure to see Glenn's purple socks.
At the evening reception Glenn Lowry was on hand to greet guests. Everyone is a photographer these days and Mr. Lowry took time to display some of his own work to Andreas Halvorsen and his family.
Jodi Hauptman with John Elderfield. Mr. Elderfield was Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 2003 to 2008. He now teaches at Princeton and is a curator for Gagosian Gallery. Glenn Lowry with his wife Susan (center) and Marnie Pillsbury, the former executive director of The David Rockefeller Fund and philanthropic advisor to Mr. Rockefeller.
Artist Alex Katz with his wife Ada, and Patti Harris, former Deputy Mayor of NYC with her husband, Mark Lebow.
Artists Federic de Francesco and Nicole Wittenberg. Nicole, who does monotypes herself, was excited about the exhibit. "No one can draw like Degas so he opened up a whole new world for himself and for all of us." Michelle Ross, artist, collector and writer wearing a dress by Nicholas.
Glenn Lowry with Pamela Eisenberg, MoMA's Assistant Director of Special Events.
Edie Monroe works at Mindshare, the advertising agency that represents MoMA. She purchased her decorative hair accessory at The Renaissance Festival.
Eric Barkley and his wife Karole Dill Barkley. Mr. Barkley is co-chair of Friends of Education at MoMA. When Karole is not busy doing homework with their four kids she is a docent at the Met. Turns out that Karole and I both went to the same boarding school (Masters) ... small world. I was the class of '58; she graduated in '78.
MoMA Trustee Agnes Gund and artist Clifford Ross. Mr. Ross's show, "Seen and Imagined," is on view at Mass MOCA. Wayne Henrickson and his wife Ann Temkin, MoMA's Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture.
Rose Donato and Mino Cinelu at the end of a great and very crowded opening night. Ms. Donato is the Project Manager Director at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Mr. Cinelu is a musician who plays percussion, drums and guitar.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.