WAS there ever such a creatively restless artist as Edgar 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,'' Mr. Vollard suggested having one of them cast more permanently in bronze. ``Have it cast!'' Degas 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 in his memoirs that Degas ``took an almost finished Danseuse [`Dancer'] from his modeling stand and rolled her into a ball of clay.''
A slightly theatrical gesture, perhaps, by an artist who left for posterity a large body of paintings, drawings, pastels, monotypes, and sculptures (many of which survived to be cast posthumously) - works in all states of finish and unfinish. But if one thing stands out in the huge Degas exhibition now at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, 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.
Something of the smell of the studio pervades this show, the first in 50 years to aim at a comprehensive display of all Degas' facets, something of the ``heat of the kitchen'' in which he cooked up his remarkably ingenious and calculatedly casual art.
Movement is the essence of Degas. But 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 forces behind the very processes of his art. His entire development, with only certain hesitations, seems to have been kept alive by a kind of dissatisfaction with his own previous achievement as well as an exploitation of its potential, though he once observed that ``art does not expand, it repeats itself.'' It is clear that he loved the process of repetition. This is what he said about drawing: ``Make a drawing, begin it again, trace it; begin it again, and trace it again.''
Obsessed with certain subjects - even with certain gestures and stances of his figures - Degas might have fallen into the kind of repetitiveness that ends in clich'e, had he not been such an exacting artist. But the business of going over and over, of exhaustively refining a motif, was, paradoxically, what actually brought him to final originality.
He also always admired and copied the old masters, though he never allowed their influence to be obvious. It was thoroughly digested, and reemerged in the guise of modern subjects. He once said of ballet (which was at rather a low ebb artistically during his lifetime) that it ``is all that's left to us of the combined movement of the Greeks.''
His capacity for applying the inspiration of ancient art to his own chosen contemporary subject matter is a particular fascination today, when the modern art is feeling the need for some sort of traditional root system. Even in Degas' late works, when paint or charcoal can be almost inchoate or brutal in its urgency and exigencies, it is still possible to be aware of classical underpinning. A charcoal of about 1895-1900, Trois danseuses nues, for instance, is almost crude in execution, and yet the three figures move diagonally into the picture space like the interrelated figures of the Parthenon frieze. He was simultaneously a modernist and a traditionalist.
But then, Degas was in more ways than one a mixture of contrasting or even contradictory characteristics. On one hand he was an acute observer of human behavior - an excellent portraitist - but on the other quite capable of painting human beings as if they were little more than instinctive animals. He was a man of sardonic humor and wit, but under a prickly exterior, his art reveals him to have had a delicate and serious sensitivity. His sense of beauty was tempered by his rather caustic awareness of a more ugly realism.
This Degas exhibition is a mammoth task: It took five years to organize, involving a great deal of new research on the artist. The catalog contains a wealth of fresh material, changes in chronology, a thorough reassessment of Degas. The show goes to three venues - Paris, Ottawa, and finally New York - and the aim in each place has been to give as balanced a view of Degas' long, productive career as possible. The idea is to do for Degas what previous recent shows have done for Manet and Renoir in terms of comprehensive tribute.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the extraordinary array of his sculptures. Although small, these figures, originally modeled in wax, extended the potential of sculpture with a relentless spirit of experiment.
It is this experimentalism, this rich inventiveness, that makes Degas' work rewarding on many levels. Even technically he was forever experimenting, and few artists have been so enjoyably engaged in the basic business of making marks on paper or canvas. There is relish and excitement in his apparently improvisatory smudges and blurs and splotches of paint, printer's ink, or pastel. It is a kind of chemistry out of which his figures emerge like sculptures whose form is half submerged in shadow. Nothing delights him more than to subject figures to the distortions of baffling shadows and lights: laundresses silhouetted against windows; caf'e singers weirdly underlit by the footlights.
And no master of pastel - his pastels being the special glory of his art - has bombarded his figures or forms with such a streaking downpour of color. The audacity of Degas' use of pastel to explore color is surely one of most stimulating achievements of 19th-century art.
The exhibition is in Ottawa until Aug. 28, and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art Oct.11 to Jan. 8.