In: exhibitions

The groundbreaking exhibition of Degas’s monotypes, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, presents Edgar Degas to the public in a new light. This incredible exhibition, the first comprehensive show of Degas monotypes in over half a century, characterizes one of the most well known artists in the history of art as an innovator and experimenter.

In two short periods from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, Degas produced over 300 of these exceptional works on paper. Hundreds more are thought to have existed but were destroyed by Degas’s brother after his death. Although these works are numerous, the majority of them were never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Therefore, these unique works are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps deemed too personal, scandalous, or experimental to be viewed by a 19th century audience, two centuries later they still retain their ability to both shock and intrigue viewers. The subjects explored by Degas in this experimental medium are wide ranging, from singers at café-concerts to prostitutes and smoke stacks; however, like his more famous paintings and pastels, the subjects which attracted Degas the most are those which capture elements of modern life in Paris.

Edgar Degas, Fireside

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). The Fireside (Le Foyer [La Cheminée]), c. 1880–85. Monotype on paper. Plate: 16 3/4 x 23 1/16 in. (42.5 x 58.6 cm), sheet: 19 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (50.2 x 64.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, and C. Douglas Dillon Gift, 1968 (68.670). Courtesy of MoMA.

While some of the subjects are scandalous, the medium Degas employs, monotype, is equally surprising. Although Degas himself explained the process of monotype simply as “drawing made with greasy ink and put through a press,” monotype is in fact a complex and contradictory medium.1 Essentially, a monotype is a print. However, the fact that it is mono, or singular, inherently defies the supposed purpose of printmaking, which is to make many copies to be distributed or reproduced. The process of creating a monotype is also very different from other printmaking processes in that the image transferred from the plate to the page is not carved into a woodblock or etched into a copper plate, but simply painted on the surface using ink, or in some of Degas’s later monotypes, oil paint, allowing the image to be changed up until it is fed into the press. This aspect of the monotype process lends the medium to more spontaneous production, perfectly in sync with the spontaneity that Degas hoped to capture in his images.

Most of the works in the exhibition are the first version, however, some are “cognates,” rare second prints made from the original plate. These second images are much lighter than the first, since most of the ink went into the first image. While the cognates are essentially the same image, Degas edited them using pastel, gouache, or event sometimes oil paint to make them entirely new compositions.

cafesinger

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Café Singer, c.1877‑78. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 3/4 × 6 3/8 in. (12 × 16.2 cm). Private collection.

This dynamic between originality and reproduction that defines Degas monotypes can be best seen in a pair of works from the exhibition, which, taken from the same plate, depict the same subject and composition; however, they have almost nothing in common. Both plates show a singer at a café-concert, the first in black and white, characterized by this juxtaposition of light and shadow, emphasized by the five bright orbs of electric lights behind the singer. These lights, which illuminate the scene, also distort it, rendering the singer’s face almost in caricature as her arm bends unnaturally into the hazy, incomprehensible space of the café-concert. In the second version, which Degas has altered using pastel, both the figures and forms of the composition are much more solidly defined. Here, both women are clearly rendered in much more detail than in the hazy original. The five light orbs have been traded in for one fancy electric light on the back wall, immediately elevating the level of the establishment from the mysterious original. When looking at these works side by side in the gallery one would never suspect that they are in fact the same work; however, that paradox between originality and reproduction seems to be at the heart of what Degas is trying to achieve with his monotypes.

Three Women in a Brothel

Edgar Degas, Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind (Trois filles assises de dos), c. 1877–79. Pastel over monotype on paper. 6 5/16 x 8 7/16 in. (16.1 x 21.4 cm). Musée Picasso, Paris.

The brothel monotypes have become infamous within Degas’s oeuvre amongst scholars and, now that they have again been exhibited to the public, they have become a controversial highlight of the exhibition. They present the viewer with a true conundrum as to how to approach the style and subject matter. Some argue that they provide a sympathetic look into the realities of 19th century prostitution, a widespread industry in Paris at the time, while others have seen these works as voyeuristic and “creepy.” Of the dozen or so of the brothel monotypes on view in this exhibition, one of the most striking is The Name day of the Madam (La fête de la patronne). This work shows a group of prostitutes celebrating the birthday of the madam. The women, who are shown in various states of undress, present the madam with flowers. It is these moments that depict the behind the scenes lives of such women, rather than the ones which illustrate them at work, which make them something truly unique.

Edgar Degas, Waiting for a Client, 1879. Charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper. Plate: 6 3/8 × 4 3/4 in. (16.2 × 12.1 cm). Private Collection.

Like many of his contemporaries, as well as many artists working today, one of Degas main aims was to create works which engaged with and reflected the society in which he lived. His monotypes clearly reflect modernity not only in the subjects, but also the medium of monotype itself, and the techniques he used to achieve such varied and incredible effects relate directly to the larger idea of capturing modern life in 19th century Paris. “His loose brushwork turned out to be the perfect vehicle for capturing both ballerinas in motion and the bustle of city life—and the relaxed linearity was well-suited for his foray into caricature, including suggesting the financial exchange at the heart of prostitution. Degas’s method of incising into the greasy pigment offered a way to render the artificial lighting that was not only illuminating Paris in new and exciting ways but changing vision itself.”2

Edgar Degas, Factory Smoke (Fumées d’usines), 1877–79. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 11/16 x 6 5/16 in. (11.9 x 16.1 cm), sheet: 5 13/16 x 6 13/16 in. (14.7 x 17.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982.

These haunting works present the often romanticized, but gritty reality of life in 19th century Paris and paint Degas as a technical innovator and experimenter in the art of printmaking.

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through July 24th.

Notes:

  1. Buchberg, Karl, and Laura Neufeld, “Indelible Ink: Degas’s Methods and Materials,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print. P. 47.
  2. Hauptman, Jodi, “Introduction,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. P. 17. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print.

As politically minded as he was self-reflective, Thornton Dial (1928-2016) was difficult to pin down. Since the early 90s, the artist has been featured in exhibitions at museum’s across the country, and over the years his work has been acquired by major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, the MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Hirshhorn in DC. Inspired by his upbringing in Jim Crow-era Alabama, much of Dial’s early work focuses on issues of race and class, and how the identity of the “outsider” played into national consciousness. The agonized expressions of the figures in Raggly Flag confront us with the contradictory message of unity the American Flag is meant to convey in a nation where many are still treated as second-class citizens. In his later work, Dial began exploring a more universal struggle, while never failing to address the nation with its own problematic history. As the first exhibition in New York since the artist’s passing earlier this year, We All Live Under the Same Old Flag at Marianne Boesky Gallery represents this change of perspective, along with Dial’s ability to capture a wider audience through his use of Americana style and appropriated consumer culture.

The Raggly Flag, 1989 Enamel on wood 48 x 96 inches 121.9 x 243.8 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

The Raggly Flag, 1989 Enamel on wood 48 x 96 inches 121.9 x 243.8 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

As a self-taught artist, Dial began his sculptural style of painting by compiling found objects and scrap materials from his job as a metalworker. He was able to transform old tires, chains, twigs, and rusted tools into highly textured and often expressionistic wall reliefs, paintings, and works on paper. His practice of weaving used fabrics together harkens back to the tradition of African American quiltmaking, seen in Negro History, a relatively recent work made from carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood.

Negro History, 2003 Carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood 50 x 49 x 3/4 inches 127 x 124.5 x 1.9 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

Negro History, 2003 Carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood 50 x 49 x 3/4 inches 127 x 124.5 x 1.9 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky

Thornton believed in the individual interpretation of his work, but his titles are often times highly charged and specific to the black community and experience, which the gallery refers to as “a secret language of symbols that convey strength, survival, and freedom – important to the dialogue of the black experience.” The extent to which this language is “secret” can be left up to the viewer; nevertheless, Negro Story is an apt title for a work that takes something old and worn and uses it to create something beautiful.

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag (Installation Views) Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2016

We All Live Under the Same Old Flag (Installation Views) Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2016

As Dial shifted his focus to wider national histories of oppression and equality, his work became more simplified in form, material, and color. In the weeks following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the artist worked almost non-stop on large-scale paintings and sculptures in an attempt to capture a national ethos. The resulting works incorporate the expressive quality of his earlier works, but are more focused on scale and composition. Winter Jackets, a beautiful painting featuring a figure in the grasps of a ghostly form, represents this newfound sensibility.

Winter Jackets, 2007 Clothing, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood 80 x 66 x 2 inches 203.2 x 167.6 x 5.1 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky.

Winter Jackets, 2007 Clothing, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood 80 x 66 x 2 inches 203.2 x 167.6 x 5.1 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Marianne Boesky.

Dial left behind a visually and historically rich body of work that tells anything but a singular perspective. “Art is a guide for every person that is looking for something,” Dial said in an interview with the New York Times. “That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.”

Thornton Dial: We All Live Under the Same Old Flag closes Saturday, June 18, 2016.

November 26, 2015

New Art on at White Cube

I attended the opening night of White Cube’s new exhibitions including ‘The Banners’ by Gilbert and George and ‘Tightrope Walk: Painted Images After Abstraction’ which was curated by Barry Schwabsky. There was a lively atmosphere and a general buzz around the artwork, with everyone seeming to like what they saw. The Gilbert and George pieces were very tongue and cheek, striking the right balance between humour and political content, dealing with issues around sex, the environment and education, amongst other issues, in their eye catching banners. I particularly enjoyed this section of the exhibition because it not only encouraged thought but it also encouraged some giggles with its controversial phrases, and to see so many people taking photos of themselves next to the art was really refreshing as it showed a direct interaction between the visitors and the exhibition. I feel the placement of the huge banners in such a vast space as White Cube provided an excellent visual display and the beautiful lighting of each piece allowed the visitors to see the most intricate details including the pencil marks that complimented the spray paint on each hand-made banner.

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The ‘Tightrope Walk: Painted Images After Abstraction’ were also equally as stimulating with their mixture of bright colours, surrealist perceptions and varied subject matters. Each piece was eye catching in its own way and I thought that Barry Schwabsky did an excellent job with curating the exhibition. So if you want an array of colour and a visual feast then head down to the White Cube to see their latest exhibition which runs from the 25th November 2015 to 24th January 2016, and it is definitely one not to be missed!

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