For and Against Method | The Nation


For and Against Method

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My friend waved his hand dismissively when I mentioned that I’d recently seen an outstanding exhibition about Edgar Degas: “How can you go wrong with Degas?” he said. True enough. But what I’d seen was more than just another guided tour of the artist’s greatest hits. Instead, “Degas’ Method,” on view through September 1 at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, is an intellectually and aesthetically challenging exhibition that promises not just familiar pleasures but a deeper understanding. Instead of organizing Degas’s oeuvre around its subject matter (ballet dancers, racehorses, landscapes) or the diverse media he employed (oils, pastels, bronze) or even chronology, it focuses on his aesthetic premises and representational strategies as they cut across medium, motif and the artist’s career. Line Clausen Pedersen, the exhibition’s curator, has articulated this approach by singling out Degas’s relation to Impressionism—as ambivalent as it was  essential—and his ideas of process, draftsmanship and artifice. Pedersen’s sort of daring ought to be more widespread among museum curators but isn’t, perhaps because it requires thinking more like an artist and less like a collector or product manager.

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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But there’s an irony in the title “Degas’ Method.” As Pedersen points out, when a fellow painter proudly boasted of having found his own method, Degas replied, “Fortunately for me, I have not found my method; that would only bore me.” In his once-famous and appropriately titled essay “Against Method,” Paul Feyerabend wrote, speaking of revolution and implicitly of science, that “participation in a process of this kind is possible only for a ruthless opportunist who is not tied to any particular philosophy and who adopts whatever procedure seems to fit the occasion.” Degas, who was born in 1834 in Paris and died there in 1917, would have said the same of art. As Pedersen writes, he is “faithful to no one and nothing, at most to himself and the idea that his art makes a difference—to art.” Such self-absorption is as modest as it is arrogant: “you must have an elevated idea,” Degas believed, “not of what you do, but of what you can one day do; without this it is not worth the trouble working.”

And yet, allergic as he was to the idea of method, of devising a formula and then unfailingly applying it, Degas was nothing if not methodical, working with great diligence and intense application. He disavowed impulse and extemporization as much as he did method. “I assure you,” he liked to say, “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament…I know nothing.” The key is repetition: “It is necessary to execute a motif ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must look accidental.”

Knowingly or not, Degas kept violating his own strictures: his works often appear casual and immediate, deceptive as that impression may be. That he would contradict himself is hardly surprising. The English painter Walter Sickert, in his memoir of Degas, reports various opinions of the master’s—that one should use oil paint as if it were pastel, or that “the art of painting was so to surround a patch of, say, Venetian red, that it appeared to be a patch of vermilion.” (Josef Albers would have agreed!) But Sickert is mindful that, with Degas, occasion is all: “It must be remembered that I am only recording what he said at a given date, and to a given person. It in no wise follows that, by advising a certain course, he was stating that he had himself refrained from ever taking another.”

In painting as in conversation, Degas knew how to take hold of a transitory observation and generalize it—to lend a percept the solidity of a precept. Yet he never lost sight of life being perpetually in transition. In his depictions of dancers at the barre, jockeys on their mounts or women bathing, he catches his subjects in an “off” moment. He is less likely to show the performance or the race than he is the moment before or after when nothing much is happening, and he excels in capturing these interludes without imposing any ulterior formality on them, either by training a too obviously intent gaze on his subjects or by depicting them in a way that advertises how much study he’s invested in them. Degas’s sense of organization and accident is eccentric. His studio, as the gallerist Ambroise Vollard recalled, was “always in complete disorder,” yet when Vollard accidentally dropped a scrap of paper, the painter scooped it up and threw it in the stove, saying, “I do not care for untidiness.” His works are like that, too: Unfussy and teeming with the random stuff of life, they cohere around a hidden sense of order that lies just beyond one’s grasp, yet no less palpable for that.

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Degas’s propensity for saying one thing and doing another is undoubtedly linked to his inveterate experimentalism (or opportunism, as Feyerabend would put it), his propensity to try anything that might lead to new ways of reinterpreting and revising his customary subjects and compositions. Consequently, for all their pungency and quotability, his quips—which I don’t intend to stop quoting—cannot be taken as entirely descriptive of his practice. Pedersen and her colleagues are not as careful about this as they should be. They take at face value the artist’s repeated assertions that, contrary to his fellow Impressionists, he had upheld the classical tradition of draftsmanship as transmitted through Ingres: “I've always tried to urge my colleagues to seek for new combinations along the path of draftsmanship, which I consider a more fruitful field than that of color. But they wouldn’t listen to me and have gone the other way.”

Degas’s drawings are marvelous, and the early ones, cool and linear, show Ingres’s unmistakable influence. But in the practice of drawing, Degas radically departed from the method of Ingres and the academic tradition of which his work is the apotheosis. Ingres’s neoclassical drawing was never a matter of simply inscribing a beautiful line. Its purpose was always teleological; no matter how much observation it involved, no matter how much trial and error, it was always oriented toward composition and the idea of a completed picture. This composition, in turn, was to be based on an analysis of the narrative to be conveyed; it had to coherently present what would later, in a completely different context, be called the decisive moment, the moment in which the truth of an action reveals itself. This kind of drawing is essentially a sort of coding.

Degas seizes upon moments that Ingres would have found utterly insignificant. In his images of dancers, for instance, he rarely shows the dance itself; what interests him is the rehearsal, or even the warm-up for the rehearsal. Likewise, he will sometimes paint a horse race, but more often he shows the period before the race has started or after it’s over. As Pedersen says, “Degas chooses unstable moments and situations that are not long-lasting, but not instantaneous either,” ones in which “the figure is preparing for something else—something that lies further out in the future or is perhaps over.”

The allure of ambiguous moments led Degas to reconceive the purpose of drawing: instead of crystallizing a moment, it liquefies a momentary order. A fascination with instability is especially evident in the many small wax or clay figure studies that Degas kept in his studio. The only sculpture of his own that he ever exhibited was the famous Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, but after his death, seventy-four others that he’d made were cast in bronze. (The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is one of the few institutions to own a complete set of them, and Pedersen has put them to excellent use in the exhibition.) Not only do they often represent unbalanced poses, but the sculptures themselves are also unbalanced: their original wax or clay forms required external as well as internal armatures to keep them upright. These sculptures were not meant to bear their own weight.

Degas’s conception of drawing led him in the direction of a second master who has always been considered Ingres’s dialectical opposite: Eugène Delacroix, who is often made to play the colorist to Ingres’s draftsman. But Degas understood that, while both artists were great draftsmen and great colorists, they had two different ideas of drawing that entailed two different ideas of color: Ingres uses drawing and color to establish clear distinctions, Delacroix to make those distinctions less so. Likewise with Degas, the mark is smudged, blurred—an area that looks like a pure transition of color appears on closer examination to be composed of innumerable little crisscrossing lines of different hues that have been blotted and interfused. A Degas line is always a quantity of substances, not a bounded singularity. The matter of which the image is composed is fundamentally mixed; indistinctions are the image’s basis. For Degas, any dichotomy between drawing and color is meaningless, and drawing loses any specific identity; it is no more the essence of a painting than an armature is the essence of a sculpture.

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