March 06, 2013
"Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando" — The back story
Wrote Karen Rosenberg in a February 21, 2013 New York Times article, "Viewers catching their first glimpse of 'Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando' will tend to agree with an early Degas biographer who called the painting 'one of his most surprising canvases.'"
More from her story below.
This 1879 picture of an aerialist being raised to the rafters by a rope clenched between her teeth is Degas's only painting of the circus. It's spectacle-driven and suspenseful, in contrast to his more voyeuristic studies of bathers and dancers at the barre. And in contrast to his cafe-concert scenes, it's strangely asocial; it doesn’t give us so much as a glimpse of the audience witnessing the daring act.
But after a close look at the painting, made possible by the Morgan Library's 'Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernando,' we start to see this canvas as echt Degas. We come to recognize his skeptical eye, his classical perspective on modern entertainment and his attraction (artistic, at least) to women who were both strong and vulnerable.
The show surrounds 'Miss La La' (on loan from the National Gallery in London) with related studies, sketchbooks, circus programs, and other ephemera.
The Cirque Fernando, in Montmartre... was in a category with opera and theater. In contemporary terms, it was more Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Brothers; it had clowns and jugglers and animals, but also acrobats and aerialists like Miss La La, the Prussian-born star of the traveling Troupe Kaira.
Degas... seems to have zeroed in on Miss La La from the first flickers of the painting in his imagination. She appears in his preparatory sketches and pastels much as she does in the finished work, as a single figure dangling in space (looking almost like one of Goya's airborne dancers).
As spectacular as this tooth hoist may look to us, it was not Miss La La's most famous stunt; that involved hanging upside down from a trapeze while supporting a suspended 150-pound cannon with her teeth, holding on even through the force of the canon's blast. One of the Cirque's marquee attractions, she was billed as 'La Femme Canon' (also as 'La Mulatresse-Canon' and 'Black Venus,' names that reflected her mixed-race background).
Posters and circus programs show her performing her signature act or, in one case, standing beside the cannon. Degas, it's clear, avoided such props. He made Miss La La appear not just exceptionally strong, but also graceful (with a hint of the awkwardness that characterizes his bathers, who are also shown from strange angles).
One early drawing (not in the show, but reproduced in the catalog) shows her from the front, and it's easy to see why Degas quickly switched to the three-quarters view; it more clearly shows Miss La La distributing her weight, bending her knees and extending her arms in opposite directions, so as to take the pressure off her famous jaw.
That pose also had a compositional benefit...: it echoed the zigzag shape of the trusses along the Cirque's polygonal ceiling. The rendering of those steep trusses vexed Degas; he sketched them repeatedly and eventually hired an architectural draftsman to assist him with the painting. (This certainly explains some of the work’s strangeness, the un-Degas-like severity of the background.)
The show includes several Tiepolo drawings of steeply foreshortened figures seen from below, studies for ceiling paintings; Degas might well have seen these works, or similar ones, on his trips to Italy.
But, crucially, Degas shatters Tiepolo's illusionism. In his painting we see the rope that lifts Miss La La, and even a hint of the dental apparatus in her grip. His fixation on the faithful rendering of the architecture, which would have been recognizable to any Parisian, also implies a desire to ground this magical ascent in a recognizably modern spectacle.
Like Tiepolo's 'St. Dominic,' Degas’s subject rises inexorably toward the heavens. The difference is that Dominic is being borne skyward by three angels, and Miss La La is hanging on by her teeth.
"Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernando" runs through May 12 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street; 212-685-0008; themorgan.org.
March 6, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink
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