Think you know everything about the impressionists? Not anymore

    Back in the days when no one cared much about making exhibitions sound sexy, there was one title that regularly filled me with despair: “Works on paper.” If a show was called “Works on paper” it was guaranteed to be dull, sparse, monochrome, and, worst of all, “rigorous”, a word the art world used indiscriminately at the time as a euphemism for “boring”.

    Dealers organised shows of “works on paper” in an effort to find something saleable in the oeuvre of artists whose art was tricky to sell — abstract sculptors; installation makers; performance artists. None of them could draw in a fluent or interesting fashion, but all could be persuaded to put their minimalist scratchings on sale in an effort to lure in some lucre. Even the worst drawing could be improved by a frame and hung on a wall.

    Affected by these memories, I approached Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec at the Royal Academy, with a soupçon of trepidation. Impressionist paintings, after all, could also slip regularly into the “rigorous” camp — there are plenty of dull Monets and repetitive Pissarros. A show devoted to their efforts on paper was not necessarily a pulse-quickener.

    All such fears were dispelled quickly, however, when I stepped into the event. Immediately varied, immediately colourful, immediately busy with ideas, Impressionists on Paper is the perfect antidote to the melodramatic Balkan wailing emanating from the Marina Abramovic show next door.

    Among the first Degas drawings we see is a selection of inventive poses recorded on coloured paper. A yawning ballet dancer stretches out her elbows on green paper. Another, seen from behind, bends forward athletically on pink paper. In the whole of western art, only Michelangelo, perhaps, was as determined as Degas to twist and cramp the human figure into such striking new positions. The coloured papers seem to draw our attention to them.

    The elegant portraitist Jacques-Émile Blanche, meanwhile, gives us a gorgeous profile of the fashionable Madame Henri Wallet done with pastels pushed to such a refined finish that you assume it to be an oil painting. The size is surprising. So is the sense of completion. Here, clearly, is a work on paper with no ambition whatsoever to be a stepping stone.

    What this isn’t, therefore, is a predictable selection of drawings. The show’s big hope is to expand the definition of “works on paper” and prove how inventively and excitingly paper could be used by a group of artists intent on challenging the rules. By working with paper in new ways, the impressionists and post-impressionists turbocharged their own revolution.

    Georges Seurat’s drawing of a naked bather, seated with immense stillness on a riverbank, is easily recognised as a study for the great Bathers at Asnières in the National Gallery. But that doesn’t stop it being something marvellous in its own right. Working on laid paper with shadowy Conté crayons, Seurat is opening up a new horizon for art. The still and beautiful bather needs no subsequent masterpiece to validate him.

    A helpful catalogue walks us through the technical innovations that made this possible: the new types and sizes of paper; the new kinds of pastels and crayons; the new colours created by the new science; the new portable set-ups that could easily be transported. Add to these technical developments a fresh determination from the artists of the time to go in new directions, and you have a situation of immense fruitfulness.

    In the crazy inventiveness that follows, a few of the show’s many participants stand out. Chief among them is, again, Degas. The present curators, you feel, have a special fondness for him. They give him the most space and the most underlining.

    Degas would have been an exquisite draftsman in any era. He didn’t need progressive materials to enlarge or drive his talent. But the melding, witnessed here, of divine skills and an appetite for innovation that grows wilder and wilder leads to achievements that feel uncommonly brave. Even as fluent a draftsman as Renoir was no match for Degas when it came to sending his lines on exhilarating journeys.

    A huge drawing, done with charcoal and red and brown chalks on tracing paper, shows a nude combing her hair. It’s a common and traditional subject in French bedroom art. But no one had contorted her into such an ungainly pose or made her combing feel as effortful as this. She’s like a farmer tackling some brambles. Simultaneously conservative and untamably wild, Degas gives the show many of its high points.

    So too, rather surprisingly, does Van Gogh. The usual image we have of him is as an unbalanced presence driven by unruly passions that bubbled into madness. Yet the first time we see him here he’s at an art school in Paris carefully copying a Renaissance bust of a young soldier in ornate armour by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and doing it with surprising refinement and precision.

    Later in the show we encounter a more familiar Van Gogh recording some thistles by a roadside in Arles, with hundreds of tiny marks and shorthand squiggles, repeated and arranged with exquisite patience. Degas’s drawings keep proving he was wilder than we usually assume. Van Gogh’s do the opposite.

    The entire event is packed with insights. Cézanne’s brilliant battle to combine what he saw with proof of the way sight actually works is evidenced so inventively in his spare and shimmering water colours.

    Toulouse-Lautrec emerges as another of the giants here, notably in his tender portrayal of two female lovers on a bed. It’s a subject that could be titillating. But not this time. Painted on cardboard with brushstrokes as fluid as tears, he gives us an image soaked with revolutionary empathy and warmth.

    Impressionists on Paper, Royal Academy, London W1, until March 10