To Degas, a beginning was an end in itself

THIS APPEARED IN THE 2/29/88 WORLD EDITION AS there ever such a creatively restless artist as Degas? Picture dealer Ambroise Vollard recalls a telling incident. Seeing ``a number of wax figures'' in Degas' studio that ``bore witness to his activity as a sculptor,'' Vollard suggested having one of them cast more permanently in bronze.

``Have it cast!'' Degas is reported to have cried. ``Bronze is all right for those who work for eternity. My pleasure consists in beginning over and over again. Like this. ... Look!''

Vollard says that Degas then ``took an almost finished Danseuse from his modeling stand and rolled her into a ball of clay.''

A slightly theatrical gesture, perhaps, by an artist who left to posterity a large body of paintings, drawings, pastels, and sculptures (many of which survived to be cast in bronze posthumously) - works in all states of finish and unfinish. But if one thing stands out in the huge Degas exhibition now at the Grand Palais in Paris, it's the sense that Degas was profoundly stimulated by the notion of art-making as ``beginning over and over again,'' by the sheer movement and energy and experimentation of it all.

It isn't just that he had a preference for subjects in motion or caught between waiting and exertion - dancers rehearsing, jockeys reining in their horses before the race, women in contorted postures brushing their hair or bathing, sponging, and drying themselves. And it's not just that the momentary, the transitional, and the unresolved subject fascinated him. It's more that flux and energy were the moving forces behind the processes of his art. His entire development, with only certain hesitations, seems to have been propelled by a kind of dissatisfaction with his own previous achievement as well as an exploitation of its potential.

In the production of actual works, few artists have been so richly inventive in the business of making marks on paper or canvas. There is great relish and excitement in Degas' apparently improvisatory smudges and blurs and splotches of paint, printer's ink, or pastel and in the way his figures emerge from this chemistry like sculptures half veiled in shadow. Nothing delights him more than to subject figures to the distortions of baffling shadows and strange lights - laundresses silhouetted against windows, caf'e singers in the footlights. And no master of pastel has bombarded his figures or forms with such a downpour of streaks of color.

His repertory of subjects may have been fairly limited, but his treatment of them never settled into complacency: The adventurous processes of picture- or sculpture-making were the stuff of his art.

It would be misleading to call this fascination for the potential of technique and process simply a concern with ``style.'' Degas was no facile, bravura artist, showing off a shallow skill. It's true that he gave up exhibiting publicly in his later years, and the idea that he worked away in his studio largely for his own pleasure may well be real enough.

But in counterpoint to this bid for stylistic freedom, is the traditionalist, the copyist, and the classicist side of Degas. However apparently inchoate or even brutal his use of paint or charcoal might become in his later works, and however much his dancers seem to melt together into a seething mass of energy and color, their underlying forms remain solid and sculptural. A charcoal of about 1895-1900, ``Trois danseuses nues,'' is almost crude in its execution - and yet the three figures move diagonally into the picture like figures in the Parthenon's frieze.

The remarkable display of his sculptures (all in bronze except for four wax originals) also bears astonishing witness to the classical feel for form that underpins his relentless spirit of experiment.

This show aims to do for Degas what previous exhibitions did for Manet and Renoir. There is exhaustive scholarly input, and an attempt at comprehensiveness - at giving a full picture of the work.

Except to visitors very familiar with Degas' work, the show contains plenty of the unfamiliar and even surprising. An attempt to group and relate subjects - portraits, history paintings, landscapes, dancers, jockeys, nudes and so forth - helps to suggest something of the range of Degas' vision. He emerges as a mixture of contrasting characteristics - an acute observer of human character who was capable of painting people as merely animal; a man of sardonic humor and even wit who could at times be prosaically solemn; audaciously revolutionary, yet severely traditional; modern, yet old-fashioned.

Apart from the separate display of the sculpture, division is not made between works in different media: drawings, sketches, preparatory works, finished oil paintings, and pastels intermingle. Though this might seem confusing, it probably presents the visitor with a true feeling for Degas' restless, complex approach. Something of the smell of the studio pervades the show, something of the heat of the kitchen in which he cooked up his remarkable art.

To May 16. In Ottawa at the Mus'ee des Beaux-arts du Canada June 16 to Aug. 28. In New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Sept. 27 to Jan. 8.

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