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.
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.