Two exhibits on view now in New York offer an up-close look at artistic method, examining how paintings develop from initial inspiration to final image.
At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Matisse: In Search of True Painting, through March 17, has been attracting large crowds and ample critical attention. Billing itself as “an exploration of Matisse’s painting process,” the Met displays Henri Matisse’s multiple approaches to the same subject side-by-side and reveals his paintings’ daily changes, tracked through photographs, offering insights into a modernist’s state of mind as he thinks through how best to express a subject.
But a second, more focused exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum also sheds light on the creative process of a modern master, without the fanfare or the crowds. The recently opened exhibition Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernando gives a detailed look at Edgar Degas’ creative process by zeroing in on the making of a single canvas.
Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, often drew upon contemporary Parisian life for the subject of his work. Perhaps best known for his paintings and sculptures of ballet dancers, Degas also depicted concerts, café life, brothels and the racetrack. This exhibit centers on a scene of an acrobat held in the air by a rope she grips with her teeth, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando.
This dramatic canvas, on loan from The National Gallery in London, features a single figure, the sensational Miss La La, the headline act for the acrobatic quartet, Troupe Kaira. In Degas’ painting, Miss La La is seen from below, foreshortened, as an audience member would see her, at a three-quarter side angle, performing one of her daring feats, framed by the complicated upper-architecture of the Cirque Fernando, a recently built structure in the heart of Montmartre.
Like the Matisse exhibit uptown, the Morgan show lays out the various steps, decisions and difficulties Degas faced during the creation of this ambitious painting. Started in January 1879, this work was included in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition later that year. Whether Degas was initially drawn to Miss La La as a subject because of the publicity around her act or because he chanced upon her routine is not known. But by surrounding the final painting with supplementary sketchbooks, notes, drawings, oil and pastel studies and architectural renderings, we get a clear sense of how Degas moved from initial idea to execution.
The earliest study of Miss La La, reproduced on the wall but not included in the show, is a frontal image of her routine, a pastel of the acrobat in a red, white and blue costume, dated January 19th, 1879. Centered on the page and with no sense of elevation, this drawing does not fully convey the danger of Miss La La’s “iron jaw” performance.
Two days later Degas executed a second pastel study, this one on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Here the point-of-view is from the side and below and Miss La La’s costume has changed to purple and yellow. In this drawing the pose has been carefully adjusted, with pentimenti around the arms, hand and legs.
Three days later another pastel of the acrobat, this one drawn from further below, is more dramatically foreshortened, incorporating hints of architecture, and is cast in a softer light. The next day, January 25th 1879, yet another drawing, increasingly refined, is gridded for transfer.
In addition to Degas’ careful attention to Miss La La’s pose, the complicated architecture of the newly built Cirque Fernando structure also posed a significant challenge. The British painter Walter Sickert recalled that, as a very young man, he visited Degas’ studio. There, Sickert said, Degas, then working on Miss La La, was having so much difficulty understanding the perspective of the sixteen-sided polygonal circus house that he employed an architectural draughtsman to help him come to terms with the angles and planes of the building. An architectural study that may be the work of Degas or, perhaps, the work of the enlisted architect, is also included in the exhibit.
In the finished work, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, the acrobat rises dramatically to the rafters, her white and gold costume softly glistening from the lights below. The composition is self-consciously innovative, with no ground plane in sight and an extreme perspective that is as if our heads are back, looking almost straight up. Miss La La’s figure, surrounded by the cantaloupe-colored upper reaches of the roof and windows of night sky, is both marvelously strong and utterly alone. In addition to the formal elegance of the final painting, Degas’ artwork invites us to consider the danger of Miss La La’s very livelihood and the humanity of such amusements.
Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernando, through May 12, 2013. The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 212.685.0008, www.themorgan.org.
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com