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PRINT September 1968

Degas Monotypes at Harvard

THE FOGG ART MUSEUM in Cambridge, Mass., closed its season last year with an interesting show of monotypes by Edgar Degas. Their quality was of course uneven, but at their best they were very good, and Mrs. Eugenia Janis, who organized the show, provided a useful catalog, with a checklist and reproductions of all Degas’ monotypes to serve as a kind of handbook illustrating her work in progress, of which a valuable segment has already been published elsewhere, on the place of monotype in the development of Degas’ style. Degas began working in monotype late in 1874 or early in 1875, and Mrs. Janis thought of asking for the first time if there might not be some particular reason for his taking it up at that moment. In my opinion her answer is misleading, based as it is on the mistaken notion that Degas at some point achieved a coherent style, whereas for me a great part of the interest of his work is its irresolution; but here, as usually, she has raised important issues and indicated the right direction in which to look, which has to do with Degas’ relation to the tradition of Ingres.

What Degas owed above everything else to Ingres, of course, was his drawing, but it is important to see that Ingres’ line was an ambiguous thing, which could develop in very different directions. It was not what we mean when we speak of a linear style. In the generation before Degas the culmination of the linear style was to be found in Flaxman, with his fluid arabesques on a surface that, in the absence of any shading, was necessarily planar. Certainly Ingres, too, had a taste for sweeping, linear curves, but his own voluptuousness perhaps as much as his admiration for Raphael led him to qualify them with shading: his drawing style depends on a rather narrow range of greys that he used to round off, to give flesh and volume to what, without shading, would have been flat. It was this intermediate scale of exquisite greys that most artists in the following generation—someone like Eugene Deveria quite as much as Degas—chose to develop, not his fluid linear curves, and of course as they did so they were led also to open up their forms: forms were complicated and their contours opened to create an atmospheric depth that shading requires anyway.

In Ingres’ followers, then, his line becomes much more a painterly line, and one reason why it is so very hard to make a statement that applies to all of Degas’ early work is that it oscillates between the two poles of the ambiguity I have tried to describe. Mrs. Janis is rather partial when she says that Degas had trouble in organizing a picture. He was very successful at organizing portraits: the faces are done in the post-Ingres style of broken contours and modeled detail, while the bodies, and the composition as a whole, are flat; but the plasticity of the face is conceived as filling what remains, at its edge, a disc adhering to the surface in much the same way as, in many recent collages, a highly illusionistic element will be pasted into a predominantly abstract design. With Degas’ historical groups, on the other hand, it was the reverse: there, the overall design is conceived in terms of depth while the components are flat—figures imagined in a kind of delineated isolation according to habits that might well have been derived from the copying of plaster casts after the antique. They are not so much interrelated as simply put together within the same format, so the illusionism of the whole composition is disavowed by the stiff frontality of the parts. Degas did do some successful group compositions before the mid-70s, such as the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, but even here the detail remains very fine—flat precise patches pasted onto a spatial scheme that comes across a bit in spite of them and only because it is so emphatically equated with the room in which the figures sit. But generally, while Degas was able to achieve both volume and flatness by that time, he very seldom could reconcile them in a single picture, and that is why we find him, for all his expertness, still copying canvases by old masters: he knew he had a lot to learn.

Mrs. Janis feels that Degas’ early style was simply linear, and she suggests that he hoped to find in monotype a cure for this. For in monotype—at least in what Mrs. Janis describes very well as the “dark field” method Degas used when he first took up this medium—line and detail are almost eliminated and mass and depth are virtually inevitable, since the method consists simply of coating a plate with greasy ink and then wiping it off with a rag in order to depict a shape. Rendered in this way, shape and contour are of course general, and the broad forms Degas got were necessarily masses or volumes since he was working in light and dark. Monotype was, in this view, a painterly corrective.

In my opinion the question of eliminating line through a painterly technique was quickly gone beyond in this medium, and that is where pastel comes in. As what I have said about Degas’ early style implies, I think that if you call his early work linear you ought to mean not so much flatness or closed form, since you often find the opposites of these qualities, but neglect of color. Degas had already tried to work seriously in pastel, beginning a bit before 1870, but for reasons that Mrs. Janis has analyzed too well for them to need repeating, this attempt failed. At what must, then, have been a time of great confusion for Degas and in the year in which he began to work in monotype, the First Impressionist Exhibition was held. In respect of color, Degas would have seen in it two things. The first was that his own notion of color, which he had conceived of as filling in a circumscribed form, was unsatisfactory—color should be more open than that. The second was that, all the same, his own approach was basically quite different from that of most of the other Impressionists, since he regarded light, or wanted to regard it, as a means of building up volume, not of dissolving it. I believe it was for this reason that from the first, as Mrs. Janis shows, he used monotype in combination with pastel: the black and white volumes and spaces of the monotype base stated the general structure of the work, which he then, in a second stage, elaborated with pastel.

Now this practice of working with pastel over a monotype base had two important consequences. What Degas was doing, of course, was adding hue to black and white, which was all the monotype had, but since he was at this stage trying to finish the rendering of volume he was using his pastels as intermediate values between the blacks and whites of the monotype base. This is a way of saying that hue equalled value, and since it was the pastel crayon he was working with, that color equalled line. It is not really useful in these circumstances to talk about linear vs. painterly, and at the same time it is misleading to talk about surface vs. depth: the medium is highly textural and granular, which is to say superficial, and while it was ostensibly used to finish the rendering of volume it is a kind of paraphrase of the intermediate greys of the earlier Ingresque line. In other words, Degas had resolved his pictorial problems by suppressing them, and it is not surprising that pastel becomes his principal medium as oil, and finally monotype itself, are abandoned. Personally, I think it is wrong to call Degas’ style from that point on an open one: after all, he was drawing, or working in line. But its great novelty was that in it line went without shape: it was a very broad line that formed color areas or patches, not contours, and these patches did not necessarily become planes that would advance or recede and so create volumes, since they were so immediately strokes on a surface. It was really these oscillations or ambiguities between line as the relatively fine edge of a volume and as the very broad expanse of a color area, and of color areas as patches that sit on the surface of a picture or as surfaces of an illusionistic mass, that henceforward become the subject of Degas’ work. But here it is time to stop writing about Degas, since what we are talking about are the problems of the New York School.

Jerrold Lanes