Enigma variations

31st May 1996 at 01:00
The current Degas exhibition reveals a very different man from the one we thought we knew, says Michael Clarke. DEGAS: BEYOND IMPRESSIONISM National Gallery until August 26

Renoir claimed that it was only after Degas turned 50 that he really became himself. Taking this as a starting point, the National Gallery exhibition focuses attention on the little-known and even less well-understood work created after the final 1886 Impressionist exhibition and in the 90-odd pieces shown here, we see developments of so far-reaching and innovative a kind that they invite not only a reassessment of Degas's achievement but the extent to which he influenced the new generation of Fauves, Cubist and other artists.

The most obvious difference between the pre- and post-1886 work is the exclusion of those very specific contexts - the race-course bar, cafe-concert, brothel, etc - that had contributed much to Degas's modernity. With the exception of a few landscapes (some incandescent oils and pastels are included here but the even more extraordinary series of monotypes are omitted), Degas concentrated his attention on the central interest of his art, the human body. This was narrowed down to women at work (dancers, serving maids) or repairing themselves, (bathing, dressing hair) with only minimal references to setting.

In the National Gallery's large oil, "Combing The Hair" (once owned by Matisse) the faces are rudimentary and the jug, bowl, and almost all the toiletry of a related pastel have disappeared leaving little more than the relationship between the two women. But within this almost entirely red and broadly executed picture the physical and psychological tensions are nearly palpable.

The greatest draughtsman of his generation and one of the finest in Western art, Degas was deep-dyed in classicism. Here, we see him transcend that tradition, loosening his line and intensifying his colours in step with ever more bold and novel poses. Lifting tracing out of its mundane role as a mere transfer, he drew with charcoal or pastel on to the transparent sheet, tracing over and under this to produce potentially endless variations and transformations of the original image: a liberating, extending technique that is hardly likely to pass untried by present-day students.

In Degas's hands, a single pose can subtly change into a series of related but separate images, telescope into a cinematic sequence of movements in a single picture, take on full three-dimensionality in a small bronze or be combined with other poses; all with a parallel transformation of meaning. Where these other poses have also been used to generate a proliferation of further images, the combined effect is like a hall of mirrors. However much Degas confined himself to a model in his studio, could this be a transposition of his earlier social concerns?

For information on events and free talks on Degas's technique tel: 0171 747 2871

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