DEGAS. This first-rate retrospective is the show of the season

NEW YORK has every reason to celebrate: The long-awaited Degas retrospective has finally made it into town. And what an extraordinary exhibition it is! Roughly 300 of the finest paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, prints, and photographs made by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) during his long and remarkably productive career; a first-rate, 640-page catalog with texts by various Degas experts; and the kind of exhibition space every curator (and artist) dreams of.

It can all be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in the brand-new, 18,240-square-foot Tisch Galleries for special exhibitions which opened to the public with this show.

``Degas,'' the first full-scale retrospective of this great French painter, draftsman, and sculptor to be held in more than 50 years, was jointly organized by the Metropolitan, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the R'eunion des mus'ees nationaux, Paris. It is arranged chronologically, beginning with Degas's student exercises made in Italy around 1865, and ending with his powerful late paintings and pastels produced in his Paris studio during the first decade of this century. In addition, works are grouped thematically, giving viewers the opportunity to follow the evolution of Degas's style within his wide-ranging areas of interest. These include young female ballet dancers in positions of action and repose; race-track scenes with thoroughbred horses and their colorfully attired jockeys; portraiture, both formal and intimate; bathers; glimpses of Parisian night life; women at work; and, toward the end of his life, landscapes.

Overriding these interests, however, was his passion for drawing, which held his attention even when, in later years, his eyesight began to fail. To perfect his native abilities, he studied and copied the Old Masters, drew and re-drew his subjects until he was satisfied he had caught what characterized them as simply and directly as possible, and remained on constant lookout for new and challenging things to draw.

When he discovered ballet, he discovered not only the world that was most ideal for his talents and interests, but the subject that would ultimately bring him the greatest fame.

Few artists have been as fortunate as he in these matters - or as capable of taking the fullest possible advantage of that good fortune. What he saw on stage, both in front of the curtain and behind, must have seemed especially designed for him. After all, where else could he find more dramatic and varied - even exotic - action, so many dynamic young bodies moving about in so many ways? And where else could he find such an intense air of expectancy and excitement, such a sense of life being lived to the full?

It wasn't the dance itself, of course - or even the dancers - that fascinated Degas so much as the challenges they presented to his genius. And that was also true of another of his favorite subjects, the race track, with its horses prancing about or getting ready to run, its jockeys, spectators, landscape backgrounds, and everything else that added up to an event full of movement and color.

Even his less dramatic subjects, the shop girls, laundresses, milliners, and bathers who people his canvases and pastels with such casual grace, were obviously chosen as much for their expressive gestures as for their activities, for the opportunities they presented to capture subtle movements unawares and then to reorganize them as pattern and design in new and often startling ways.

Degas's images have become so much a part of our visual heritage that we tend to forget how original they were and how remarkably inventive he was in matters of pictorial organization. Thanks partly to his experiences with photography, especially its ability to utilize unplanned effects, but mostly to his interest in capturing movement at its most fleeting and telling, he was able to create paintings of such immediacy and informality that they occasionally seem more like snapshots than like the paintings we usually encounter in museums.

This is even true of his portraits, which often appear utterly unposed and give the impression that Degas caught his subjects ``on the wing'' as they relaxed at home or went about their business. It is only as we examine the sketches and studies made in preparation that we realize how much planning went into these apparently casually executed works.

As a matter of fact, it's in his numerous drawings and pastels, both those made as studies and those fashioned as ends in themselves, that we catch the best glimpse of the process through which Degas's art unfolded and found its fullest realization. To really comprehend what Degas was all about, we must realize that, while he may have been an excellent colorist, a superb designer, and a sculptor of genius, it's primarily because of his draftsmanship that he achieved true greatness. In this exhibition, we watch his progression from exact, Ingres-like pencil studies to the magnificent, broadly executed pastels of bathers and dancers that rank among the finest drawings ever made. What begins in a cool and detached manner gradually becomes more open and empathetic, until, from the mid-1880s on, we are confronted by works that bear, not only evidence of total artistic authority, but extraordinary warmth, dignity, and compassion as well.

I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough - even to those who may have seen it at the National Gallery of Canada. Because of replacements and works included only in New York, this show is substantially different from the one in Ottawa.

It will remain on view at the Metropolitan through Jan. 8. Admission is by ticket only, which can be purchased through Ticketron and TeleTron, or at the Metropolitan during museum hours.

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