Degas and Monotypes at MoMA

On our latest visit to New York City, we spent a full day at the Museum of Modern Art. (Granted, we ducked out for lunch and to buy shoes in the middle, but we came back for the rest of the day.) Two exhibits were particularly memorable. One, that I will describe today, was a showing of Edgar Degas' monotypes: A Strange New Beauty, which will be on view until July 24, 2016.

A monotype is both a painting and a print. The artist paints onto a plate, which could be made of copper, zinc, Mylar, glass, or other smooth surface, places a sheet of paper on top of the plate, then runs the plate through a press. The painting is now printed on the paper. With this technique the artist has slightly less control: the final image changes under pressure, and lines can blur, fields can widen. But Degas, who used the monotype as an experimental platform, appears to have controlled his prints masterfully, or at least had a master printer at hand.

In the May 12, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books, there is also a review of the exhibition, and a bio of Degas (we will have to suspend our judgment about his character for the sake of his art) and a nice description of  his process. Most of the prints are in black and white, but he generally pulled two: the first, which was fully inked, and the ghost—the ink that remained on the plate after the first print. Often, he went back in with colored pastels to enhance the ghost. In this exhibit, some of the prints and ghosts with pastel enhancement are paired (an achievement since most had been long separated at birth). He also worked in at least two different techniques: "dark field" and "light field." The first meant inking up the plate and is a subtractive process—wiping, scraping, smudging or drawing away the lights. The second is an additive process; the lines are drawn or painted in black, the whites left blank.

A few images from the show. There is also a catalogue Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, edited by Jodi Hauptman.

Here is the first that struck me. I kept going back to look at the rendering of the top hat. (A digital zoom will not display the marks properly, however, and I didn't take a closeup.) Titled "The Two Connoisseurs (Les Deux Amateurs)" c. 1880. The linework seems loose, yet the men, so detailed. This appears to me to have been done in a "light-field" manner.

 Here are some ballerinas, separated at birth in France, but reunited in New York City.
Definitely created with the "dark field" technique.
"Ballet Scene" c. 1879.
(You can see a closeup in The New Yorker article April 11, 2016.)
Original on the left, ghost with pastel on the right. 

And here are two connoisseurs who found the magnifying glasses placed strategically in holders around the galleries.

Up close, the markmaking is exquisite.
"The Fireside (Le Foyer [La Cheminee])" c. 1880-85.
The wall text says that Degas used his fingers, a rag, and a stiff brush to create this scene.

"Getting into Bed (Le Coucher)" c. 1880-85

And through the magnifying glass. 

The wall text reads: "…the visible fingerprints are a reminder of the artist's hand,
the role of touch in the making."

Fingerprints, brushstrokes, pastel marks—all are indications that someone was there. Through Degas's work we find the ghost of the hand that made them more than one hundred years ago. And a very fine hand it was.