I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes I’ll read a review of an exhibition and think, “Sounds good, I really want to see this.” But I look at the dates and I think, “Oh, it’s on for ages. I have plenty of time to get there.” Then, before you know it, time starts to accelerate and suddenly, the show is open for less and less time, and you can’t get there because…whatever, life gets in the way.
So, with that in mind, I was walking through Picasso Looks at Degas this afternoon, making the most of it while I can. And I was stopped in my tracks once again by the prints in the last room. I used to make etchings myself, many years ago, and I have always been attracted to these magical images that are the end result of various rather complicated processes.
In purely technical terms, Degas’s monotypes and Picasso’s etchings are amazing things. A monotype is produced by painting with ink on the surface of a metal plate, manipulating the marks, then brushing, wiping, or smearing them with the fingers or with a piece of cloth, and finally running the plate through a press. When the ink is transferred to paper it produces a unique image with a character that is distinctly different from any other kind of print.
Making an etching involves covering a metal plate with a thin film of acid resistant wax, then drawing lines through the wax with a needle. When the plate is immersed in an acid bath, the acid eats into the metal only where the lines have been drawn, producing grooves below the surface of the plate that will hold ink when the plate is printed.
A plate can be left in the acid for various lengths of time, so it’s possible to produce lines of different depths that print in different ways: fine, elegant, sinuous lines or rich, thick, black, almost violent marks etched deep into the metal. Both Degas and Picasso were imaginative and experimental printmakers who exploited the different techniques with remarkable originality.
But these prints are much more than technical tours-de-force. Each in its own way is a powerful, intense, passionate image, and in some cases, they are also very funny. Degas’s small, intense monotypes invite us to look closely at the women in their various states of undress, and at the men who stare at them, entranced, enraptured, seduced by the sight.
In Picasso’s etchings, the women display their naked bodies gleefully, reveling in their own physicality, enjoying the sight of little Monsieur Degas standing with his hands clasped tightly behind his back, looking appalled to be seen in their company, like a naughty schoolboy caught peeping through a bathroom keyhole. Degas’s intimate images draw us into the private world of the Parisian bordello; Picasso’s prints, made in his late ’80s, celebrate sensuality with an almost wild, exuberant energy.
Fortunately, the exhibition still has a few weeks to run. It closes on September 12th, which means I still have some time to spend with these spectacular images. But if you want to see the show without having to go to Barcelona, don’t delay. Don’t think “Oh, it’s on for ages, I have plenty of time to get there.” The clock is ticking, and September 12th will be here before you know it!
Michael Cassin, Director, Center for Education in the Visual Arts