Degas in black and white
At the BnF, in Paris (1)
Where are the pink, lime green or turquoise tutus of the Opera dancers? And the orange scarves of the ironers, the canary yellow ruffles of the café-concert singers? For many amateurs, the art of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) covers the entire chromatic palette, his mastery of pastel allowing him a thousand and one iridescences and as many sparkles.
Rich in the finest collection in the world of prints by the artist, the BnF sheds light on another facet of his work, his passion for black and white: “If I had to start my life over again, Degas asserted (a little provocative ?), I would only do black and white. Undoubtedly because, attentive observer and tireless experimenter, he pushed non-color to its ultimate limits. Hatching, streaking, imprints but also velvety, melted and monochrome: from the sheet left bare to the opacity of a thick puddle of ink, Degas never ceased to explore the various techniques of engraving, mixing them, overlapping each other. The exhibition very intelligently guides the visitor, invited to understand the research and innovations of an artist whose path he admires, step by step, through the heart of shadows and light.
A virtuoso draughtsman, as evidenced by his sketchbooks – the BnF has 29 of them – where, unlike Delacroix, color was almost banned, Degas took an interest in prints to the point of equipping himself with a news. He prints his own sheets there but also those of his friends, Pissaro in particular, one of the rare impressionist painters to devote himself to engraving. Thus, like Rembrandt, whom he venerates and from whom he openly draws inspiration – see his youthful self-portraits – Degas can draw various states, more or less inked, to keep only the one that suits him. The series of Mary Cassatts at the Louvre, of which the BnF exhibits four of the twenty states, is therefore particularly interesting, a progressive conquest of black over white…
Portraits, cabaret scenes whose lighting is a pretext for immaculate flashes piercing the density of gray, but also women spied on in the intimacy of their toilet… the artist’s themes probe, not without an immodest elegance, the mystery of beings, displayed in the public sphere or withdrawn into the sanctuary of a bedroom. From 1895, Degas was enthusiastic about a new medium, photography: there again, he searched the dark recesses of a garden, the soft hollow of a shoulder or the fire of a dark pupil. “Photography was a terrible passion, I bored all my friends,” he wrote to Daniel Halévy in 1905. It appeared to him to be a marvelous tool for “revealing” reality, suggested Henri Loyrette, co-curator of the exhibition.
In the evening of his life, the painter’s gaze is still dazzled by the outline of forms, the texture of fabrics and the transparency of skin tones. By the night devouring the day.