A great artist's advice: do not miss this Degas

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Howard Hodgkin is arguably the greatest colourist of our times, his paintings instantly recognisable from their surface of brilliant, bold blobs, dots and curves, laid thick and bright on chunky blocks of wood. He is also, in the words of the Independent's chief art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, "a painter who does not see the art traditions of the past as a prison but as a home". Here he reflects on the new Degas exhibition which opens at the National Gallery, in London, today.

This extraordinary exhibition devoted to the works of Degas's last years shows us a new artist. Age set him free from so many preconceptions. It is now possible to see him evolve from being one of the great draughtsmen of all time into a painter who defies comparison within the 19th century and who has as much claim as Cezanne to be seen as one of the first modern artists.

The National Gallery's exhibition examines his later works with a relentless concentration almost amounting to tunnel vision. The intensity is moving and revealing in ways that are totally unexpected.

Rows of paintings and drawings of the same subject (borrowed from collections all over the world) show how, though Degas's art began with observation, it became very quickly almost totally self-sufficient. This may sound like egomania; on the contrary, the more he forged his own language of painting, the nearer he came to an art of extreme expressiveness, only paralleled by the late works of Turner.

Among particular revelations here is the late pastel from Chicago, called simply "The Bathers" (c1895-1905). This astonishing arrangement of modelled figures in a landscape is both flat and three- dimensional at the same time. It's the equivalent of the bas-relief sculpture which Degas never made. I would also single out the series of pastels of Russian dancers - they have an extraordinary polychromatic brilliance and an almost insane freedom of movement.

Don't let the hype that surrounded the Cezanne show at the Tate suggest that this exhibition is in any way second best. Many of the works on display at the National Gallery are physically very frail. We will never see them together again. And forget about Impressionism - that dread word hardly means anything any more. This is an unmissable show by a great painter.

'Degas: Beyond Impressionism' opens today at the National Gallery, London WC2, and runs until 26 August, 10am-6pm. For information, telephone: 0171- 839 3321