Barry Schwabsky focuses on the painter’s interest in instability:
Degas seizes upon moments that [Jean-Auguste-Dominique] 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 [curator Line Clausen] 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.
The exhibition “Degas’ Method” runs through September 1st at the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.
(Image of a dancer by Edgar Degas, 1881-1883, via Wikimedia Commons)