Degas Uncovered: MoMA Exhibition

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The paintings of Degas that most of us know and love are a stark contrast to what you see presented in the new Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty.” Though there are a few of his signature ballerinas within the exhibit, they are much darker than the full-of-life oil paintings we have all seen walking the halls of museums. The majority of the pieces you observe upon visiting are rarely seen works that have been sitting in a variety of private collections. It has been 50 years since anyone put together the majority of Degas’ monotypes.

The first portion of the exhibit is full of monotypes Degas created in the 1870s and 1880s. It is the process of drawing ink on a metal plate that was then run through a press. Typically this would result in one print, but as you can see from the exhibit, Degas experiments and creates multiple monotypes from the same plate. Here is an example of when he would use the same plate as a starting point for multiple images. He reworked each one as he created. He would add and subtract elements from the same work—creating a very interesting collection of images.

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These monotypes show Degas at his most modern and radical. Even during his lifetime critics considered his work “wholly modern.” He used his home, Paris, as his muse for modernity. It was in everything—a man running down the boulevard, views from a moving bus, women lingering scandalously alone at a café. Degas had endless inspiration to choose from with this motion filled city. His love of movement and tempo is captured at its best in his renowned ballerina paintings.

The exhibition later takes you through some of his unfinished works—he used to lay down areas of tone on canvas before filling it with color and sometimes he choose to never add the color due to his love of working in monochrome. Degas admitted he would have done all of his work in differing shades of gray if there was not such a high demand for color at the time. More than a few of the pieces on display at the exhibit are detailed sketches or monotypes of paintings he would later fully create. He used to say, “Make a drawing, begin it again, trace it, begin it again, and retrace it.” According to Degas, genius does not appear in the first trial.

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The rest of the exhibit shows several pastels and paintings—still with minimal color—of things such as brothels, landscapes, and bathing women. His more provocative pieces were not sold or exhibited to anyone during his lifetime. He used them to explore the monotype medium.

The sketches presented throughout the exhibit are exquisitely detailed and the MoMA was kind of enough to offer all of its visitors magnifying glasses so as to see even the tiniest of Degas’ details. The monotypes are from the late 19th century, so they are rather small in size. The smaller scale of the art brings you closer in to the walls, creating an a more intimate experience with the works on the wall. This brilliantly curated exhibit is a necessary visit for both the art aficionados of the world, and those just dipping their toes for the first time in the pool of modern art.

For more information, visit moma.org