Degas, Miss La La and The Cirque Fernando

Review

of an Exhibition

by Stella Liberman

Published on April 25, 2013

  • Description:

    ‘Degas, Miss La La and The Cirque Fernando’ at the Morgan Library is an exhibit that shows the process of an artist as well as the context in which he worked in. The exhibit fills one room on the second floor of the Morgan Library. If you enter from the elevator one sees three floor to ceiling panels that divide the room. On the right panels is a detail from the painting “Miss La La”, the left panel has a reproduced photograph of Miss La La herself. This clear juxtaposition of the artist rendering and the person he chose to depict sets up the viewer for the close looking at the process of the artist.
    As I moved past these first panels I found a small space with images and text lining the walls and two cases in the center of the room with books. I started to walk clockwise. In this order the exhibit starts by exploring Degas’ process, first revealing his initial sketches of the Miss La La at the circus. Miss La La is first shown with three quarter profile, revealing her grand trick; holding onto a bar with her mouth while being lifted into the air. She hangs there, captured in a moment of grotesque skill. Degas does not change the figure, but in the subsequent images he struggles with the architecture of the circus.
    This side of the space is completely devoted to Degas process. I found this to be incredibly interesting. By focusing on one piece, the viewer can really see the artist’s process and his continuous working of one subject. I found this to be very refreshing. Museum usually only present finished products of artist, ignoring the arduous process that many artists have in realizing their artistic visions. Degas’ struggle to actualize his vision is intriguing and is illuminated by the wall text.
    The text draws the visitor’s attention to the subtle changes that Degas makes in his drawings. Some wall texts also give some quotes by Degas as he wrote to friends about the painting and his desire to depict modernity. They reveal that for Degas “ modernity comprised of a fusion of the artificial with the real.” As one begins to feel that Degas will never figure out the architecture of the circus, one gets to the wall with the completed painting. It is a medium sized painting, placed in the center of the back wall. It can be scene from all parts of the room, but the rest of the exhibit allows you to look more closely at the image with more knowledge of its process and context.
    The right side of the room is devoted to information and images of the circus from other artists of the time such as Toulouse Lautrec and Henry Gabriel Ibels. This allows the viewer to place Degas’ image among his peers and recognize that the circus was a subject used by many other in that time. This side of the space also reveals the idea of Degas’ image taking references from Christian images of angels. Calling Miss La La his “secular angel”, with a “material prop” of the rope instead of a miraculously elevated figure among clouds and cherubs. This side of the exhibit also shows several photographs of Miss La La and her circus partners. While going more in-depth on their performances and tricks. After seeing her figure hanging in Degas studies, it is interesting to see her real face, and real posture. In addition, there are several fliers and advertisements for the circus showing a different perspective of the circus life, and of Miss La La.
    As I finished my walk around the room I noticed the other visitors taking different paths in their viewing; gaining context first before seeing Degas studies and struggles as an artist. While I think this is a legitimate path to take, it seems to me that the curators wanted viewers first to see the studies and then to place it in a larger context. This idea is solidified for me by the touch screen table in the front of the exhibit. There visitors are able to click through more of Degas’ studies of the subject, found in his sketch books that are held in France. I thought this was another way for visitors to get a look inside the artist’s process, and a way for the curator to underline the importance of that idea. I also thought it was a wonderful way to use technology. We are unable to hold and peruses the actual sketchbooks due to their fragile nature as well as price, but with these touch screens, visitors can see the artists sketchbooks and ideas. Interestingly the children visitors went straight for the touch screens, seemingly disappointed that there were not games to play on them, or bright colors to see.
    The colors and tone of the exhibit were very somber, perhaps too somber. For an exhibit that deals with a circus and one of its performers, the tone set by the colors does not reflect the fun and brightness of a circus and diminishes from the excitement a visitor feels while learning about the amazing tricks and gift of Miss La La and the Cirque Fernando. The exhibit comes off as very scholarly and perhaps can dissuade visitors from getting closer to the works to see the artist’s process and learn about the modernist movements. While the content was very interesting and intriguing, the hushed space and boring colors made it difficult to fully connect with the works.

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