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Video transcript

There's a wonderful description of Degas by his friend Pissarro, and Pissarro was very active politically. He describes Degas in a letter to his son. He says, "Degas is an anarchist, but in art." Degas was introduced to the monotype in the mid­ 1870s by his friend, the artist and printmaker Ludovic Lepic, and they make Degas' first monotype together. And for Degas the process is always the most interesting. Go into the print studio and see what comes out of it. A monotype is a hybrid of drawing and printmaking. The artist would draw on a plate, the plate would be sandwiched with a piece of paper and run through a press. It goes through the press once and then the image is pulled off onto the sheet of paper. There’s always a kind of wonderment of how it looks and I think sometimes one would be incredibly happy and sometimes probably the opposite. The monotypes have been divided into two types: the dark field and one called the light field. And dark field is when Degas would lay a curtain of black ink on the plate. It is reported that he used a dauber, a piece of felt which has been rolled up and tied so it looks a little sausage. And then draws by removing the ink. And so in those works, you get the sense of an image emerging out of darkness. He would use his own hands, he might use a piece of fabric to get a certain kind of texture, or a sponge, the back of a brush, anything that he had around the studios. The light field is, essentially, the opposite. You start with a totally unmarked plate and then you add ink but you would add it with a brush or with a rag. If you’re using a cotton paper, the fibers of the paper need to soften up in order to accept the ink better. So the dampening of the paper loosens the fibers up so that all of the image can then come up from the plate’s surface. You get the sense that Degas falls in love with this process, that he really goes crazy for it. Even one of his friends has this description of Degas saying that he's no longer a man, he's a plate. When we think of a monotype, even when you hear the word, it's “mono” - it’s one. But Degas used it to create multiple impressions, and what he would get is a kind of ghost image, a degraded image of the first impression. And he uses pastels sometimes to enhance the image, to define it. He’s very experimental, especially in the landscape monotypes. And he’s using oil paint instead of printer’s ink which is not typical. He lets the press kind of smoosh it, and you get this kind of smooshed field of color. One of the inspirations for him making the work is seeing the landscape through the door of a moving train. How do you express something that you experience as you move through it? Monotype encouraged that freedom, encouraged a kind of looseness. The way you can smudge the image in monotype allows him to capture the hustle and bustle of the city. Faces that Degas might have passed by, he’ll just smudge them out. Working strongly against the conventions that he learned as a young artist. No matter how much you work onto the plate, how long it takes you, each time you print it, when you pull it off, you just basically have to live with what you got. That’s the beauty of it. It was the process that was important, there was never a final picture. It was about endlessness, always the possibility of another image to be made.