The Morgan Library and Museum in New York is transitioning two of their main galleries right now, so if you visit before May 10th, the only temporary installation you’ll find is the second floor room currently holding Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernando.
The entire exhibit is based on a single painting hung in the center of the back wall: Degas’ “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando” painted in oil in 1879, and the only work Degas ever painted with a circus subject. As you walk clockwise around the room, you’re first greeted with the pastel and oil studies completed in preparation for the final work, but after you pass the painting, you find Henry Gabriel Ibels’ lithographs of circus rings from the 1860s, followed by late nineteenth century circus posters – two of which feature Miss La La.
Miss La La was an aerialist traveling with the Troupe Kaira who performed for Degas during their appearance at the Cirque Fernando in Paris from December 1878 to February of the following year. In the painting she’s performing one of her signature acts: gripping a rope with her teeth and flying through the air.
Books lay open under glass in the gallery’s center – a novel about the circus that a friend of Degas wrote around the same time and glossaries of infamous circus performers and tricks of the trade. The exhibit ends with a far-reaching connection to Renaissance representations of the angels in ceiling paintings, calling Miss La La a “secular angel” because her occupation also involves people craning their necks to see her. The four brown wash drawings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo completed centuries before the rest of the exhibit’s work seemed like too obvious a filler, especially for an institution whose holdings lie predominantly in drawings.
As you leave the exhibit it hits you that the whole thing only takes up half of the room because its entrance is blocked off by large introductory walls. It’s difficult to curate an entire show around a singular work, especially when it’s the only one where the artist worked that subject matter. Seeing the different studies that led up to the final piece is definitely the highlight, but it could have been rounded out with paintings and studies from other artists who painted more circus scenes, even though their names might not have the booming resonance of da Vinci or Degas.
For more about the Morgan’s exhibit, see their website.