Degas at MoMA

Degas at MoMA

Edgar Degas, “Heads of a Man and a Woman (Homme et femme en buste),” c. 1877–80. British Museum, London. Bequeathed by Campbell Dodgson.

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” at the Museum of Modern Art is a revelatory exhibition for this art lover who thought he had had it up to here with the master’s pretty pastels and bouncy ballerinas. Focusing on a selection of Degas’ monotypes—120 of them, supplemented with 60 related paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, prints and, yes, pastels—the show opens a window and lets in some fresh air on the artist. 

A monotype is a drawing in black ink on a metal plate that has been run through a press, producing a single print on paper. Sensing the medium’s potential, Degas experimented with the process between the mid-1870s and mid-1880s and again during the early 1890s. Experimentation liberated the artist, who used his fingers (and other implements) to wipe, scrape and scratch the printer’s ink on the smooth plate. Think back to the joys of fingerpainting when you were a child, and you’ll get the picture of an artist having fun as he made art.

However, everything is not childlike in Degas’ world, so a word of caution if you plan to bring youngsters to the show. Degas was no stranger to the demimonde. Among the G-rated portraits, landscapes and ballet scenes are vignettes set in bordellos, where he realized human flesh and desires in the raw. Some of the images may shock. Many are not at all pretty.

Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., 212.708.9400, moma.org

Installation view of “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” (Courtesy Museum of Modern Art)