Modern art is more than a century old and, thanks to reprographics, a copy of nearly any great work of art may be purchased from the Internet or at a museum's gift shop. As a result, it can be a challenge to envision when certain artists were new and groundbreaking. Such is the case with Edgar Degas, an artist closely associated with motifs of ballet dancers on posters and tote bags. This saturation has also caused his experimentation with other themes and media to be overshadowed.
"Degas at Harvard," at Harvard University's Sackler Museum (through Nov. 27) is an excellent opportunity to discover the artist anew. The exhibition shows many of his portrait and figure studies and a few examples of horses and riders, another of his favorite motifs.
Having mastered the human and equestrian form, he began to venture into more abstract design, reworking and rubbing out lines and dissolving hems of clothing toward the outer edges of the composition. This is the genesis of modernism and early abstraction. One striking example of this is the painting "Cotton Merchants in New Orleans," which Degas probably painted on a trip to the United States to visit relatives in Louisiana. Men wearing top hats stand at a table of fluffy whiteness with hints of tone in the vigorous brushstrokes. Most interesting is the upper left corner of the canvas, where there are outlines of the man's hat that parallel the figure, giving the impression of motion and time passing in the frame - much like a photograph where the shutter was left open.
More curious than his dancers are Degas's portraits of singers engaging in one of the popular entertainments of the age: the cafe concert. Many pieces reveal repeated strokes as layers of paint were added and then scratched or removed. Critic and poet Paul Valery wrote of Degas that he was "like a writer ... drafting and redrafting ... never admitting his work has reached its final stage...."
Another surprise in the exhibition is that Degas was a photography enthusiast. His photos hark to his earlier work: wild landscapes of bushy terrain, the plane of a road flanked by tall cypresses that fade into the horizon. His photos seemed to have inspired experimentation with monotypes, a process by which one places printer's ink on a plate that can be added to or subtracted from. Some of these monotypes look contemporary: curious, abstract landscapes - paysages imaginaires, or imaginary landscapes - that he would press and then alter with pastel or strokes of a fingertip.