For 19th Century French Artists, 'Noir' Was The New Black After the Industrial Revolution, artists started getting creative with some newly available black materials. An exhibit at LA's Getty museum celebrates their exploration of the shadows.
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For 19th Century French Artists, 'Noir' Was The New Black

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For 19th Century French Artists, 'Noir' Was The New Black

For 19th Century French Artists, 'Noir' Was The New Black

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to the Getty Center here in LA to an exhibition with some unsettling subjects - a Demon, a dead soldier, an eyeball floating in a balloon. She surveyed French prints and drawings from the 1800s created with materials made available by the Industrial Revolution.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The show is about the art of darkness. The title is "Noir," French for the color black. Artists started using black in new ways in the 19th century - with black chalk, black pastels, black crayons, black charcoal.

TIMOTHY POTTS: Black can be intense and dramatic.

STAMBERG: Timothy Potts, director of the Getty.

POTTS: I mean, it's dark. It's the color of the night, of the unknown, of the scary.

STAMBERG: Manet, Redon, Degas, Corot, Courbet, lots of lesser-known painters, too, began putting black on paper in lithographs, etchings, drawings - not for the first time but different because of 19th-century technology and the times.

POTTS: Life was changing at a pace which it never had before. And it wasn't all good. There was the poverty and the desperation of city life in a way that hadn't existed before.

LEE HENDRIX: The air was terrible.

STAMBERG: This is Lee Hendrix, curator of the "Noir" show.

HENDRIX: Urban violence was becoming a kind of regular thing. The city and especially the night city and the city of Paris itself began to take on life as a kind of demonic domain.

STAMBERG: Artists reflected these shadowy changes. In 1827 Eugene Delacroix drew a demon, Goethe's devil Mephistopheles. The lithograph shows him flying over a dark city. The incarnation of evil with his claw-like finger and toenails is grinning leer - scary.

HENDRIX: I think they are plumbing the depths of the frightening, unimagined evil in ways that had not happened before in art.

STAMBERG: It's raining black in Odilon Redon's 1880 charcoal "Apparition" - long dark lines slanting downward. A dreamlike ghostly presence emerges from the dark. There's a bit of light around him. Artists rubbed squished-up bread onto the paper to lift away the powdery charcoal.

ALISON SAAR: I was up to my elbows in charcoal yesterday.

STAMBERG: Artist Alison Saar tidied up before joining us at the Getty. She was intrigued by an unusual Degas in the show - a monotype. The "Toilette" from 1885 brought out the artist's dark side. Usually Degas used vivid colors in his paintings and pastels of women bathing. But here he's putting black ink on a metal plate and wiping it off to create her arms.

SAAR: He's basically wiping her arms as she's wiping her arms. And so the subject and the matter are married in that respect.

STAMBERG: This Degas is a monotype.

SAAR: He did one. You printed it. And it was over.

STAMBERG: But the Industrial Revolution brought ways to produce several copies of an artwork - mass-produced prints that were snapped up at art shows. Again, curator Lee Hendrix.

HENDRIX: And these shows were so well-attended. When you look at old engravings of them, they almost look like a department store.

STAMBERG: Full of busy buyers. Art got democratized. Ordinary people could afford it. That's something of a ray of sunshine piercing through the "Noir." In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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