'Miss La La's' teeth: reflections on Degas and 'race'.

Author:Brown, Marilyn R.
 
FREE EXCERPT

Race-thinking is its own best refutation.--Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1) Disgust always bears the imprint of desire. These low domains, apparently expelled as "Other." return as the object of nostalgia, longing and fascination. The forest, the fair, the theatre, the slum, the circus, the seaside-resort, the "savage": all these, placed at the outer limit of civil life, become symbolic contents of bourgeois desire.--Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (2) The unexpectedly inverted perspective and seemingly precarious asymmetry of Edgar Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879, National Gallery, London, Fig. 1) make it one of the artist's most daringly innovative modern genre paintings. Yet this, his only picture of an identifiable person of color, is also a portrait in which the face is virtually effaced by the body, a portrait in which inner life is eschewed in favor of external description. Suspended in midair by the strength of her astounding teeth, the acrobat wears brownish tights, distinguishable as such by wrinkles at the back of a knee. Lit from below, the tan color of the opaque hosiery is echoed in the figure's shadowed arms and face. Exposing more stocking than Degas's famous dancers, the circus performer's legs can be misrecognized as bare, adding an erotic charge to an image produced at a time when women's legs were typically hidden by floor-length skirts. Surrounded by the roughly complementary greenish blues and reddish oranges of the ceiling, as well as the bright yellows and pale violets of the costume, the more tertiary (less "pure," more mixed) tans of the tights serve both to mask and to allude to the performer's mixed-race identity. Even today, viewers may initially miss the fact that the acrobat is ethnically "black." Closer inspection of her hair and nearly lost profile, however, reveals this to be the case. Although Degas himself may have seen a modernist analogy between the performer's remarkably disciplined equilibrium and his own compositional balancing act, the physiognomy and bodily vocabulary he gave to her suggest another story. Her hidden teeth, which hold the dizzy composition together, could unclench at any moment.

Who was this "Miss La La," famous in her own day as "la mulatresse-canon" (the mulatto cannon-woman)? Why did Degas choose to paint her? The motif of a woman performer with tensely choreographed muscles garishly illuminated by artificial lighting clearly connects with Degas's series on Parisian dancers and cafe-concert singers. But this work belongs to no series. Degas very carefully prepared the project with numerous drawings and sketches and produced an adroitly accomplished painting that was successfully received, yet it bore no real progeny, no related series of paintings of other acrobats or circus performers. This probably had something to do with technical problems the painter encountered in completing his vertiginous perspective. However, it is more revealing to examine the picture's idiosyncrasy within Degas's oeuvre in light of the component of its construction most often overlooked by historians: namely, the model's racial identity.

The most common interpretation of Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando links it with a broad iconographic current in modernist art and literature, including Edmond de Goncourt's novel Les freres Zemganno, published the same year as Degas's painting, in which the circus performer serves as a self-referential image of the artist/author. (3) In Goncourt's novel, for example, the fall of one of the male acrobat protagonists, Nello Zemganno, refers symbolically to the recent death of Goncourt's own brother, Jules. (4) In the case of Miss La La, this kind of cultural reading, with one exception, has not really broached a different kind of projection of identity: in its relation to race. (5) Yet the painting clearly addresses the way a specifically white masculinity has defined identity in relation to what it characterizes as "low, dark and irremediably corporeal." (6) In depicting Miss La La's elevation, Degas reversed the expected relation of "high" and "low," linking his image with the carnivalesque. (7)

An important exception to the prevalent interpretative focus on Miss La La and the circus is a recent article by James Smalls. Discussing the picture as part of a larger, substantial study of the modern spectacle of "race" in late-nineteenth-century French art and popular culture, Smalls maps the commercial display of Miss La La and other black performers for public consumption. He convincingly situates Degas's picture within a broader visual practice of social masquerade, ranging from depictions of minstrelsy to those of interracial performance, in which racial difference was simultaneously represented and obfuscated by the white gaze. He sees Degas as selectively destabilizing the image of Miss La La's body, which public expectations marked racially as hypermuscular and exotic. Our approaches and interpretations finally differ, mine being more archivally based and his being more theoretical, but we share many concerns about the intersection of race and gender in this painting as well as about the role of race in the formulation of high modernism. (8) More than Smalls, I explore how Degas destabilized the representation of Miss La La's mixed-race identity through the process of formulating the image in various sketches. In doing so, I situate the picture historically in relation to contemporary constructions of physiognomy and racial hybridity.

Racial issues, in fact, played a more significant role in Degas's preparatory sketches than has heretofore been acknowledged. The artist produced approximately twenty studies of Miss La La or of the surrounding architecture on the evenings of January 19, 21, 24, and 25, 1879, at the Cirque Fernando, as well as later in his studio. He started out doing rapid notebook sketches, including a fleeting compositional study enframing a stick figure with raised right arm and bent legs and a cropped, diagonal rope (Fig. 2). Even though the progression of his drawings was not completely linear, from the notebook sketches he proceeded to do some seven larger figural drawings, ranging from rough and rather caricatural to more detailed studies of arm and leg gestures and of lower and upper torso. (9) Recent exhibitions at the National Gallery in London and at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Manchester, have provided helpful technical analyses pinpointing the relations of many of the larger full-body studies to the final painting. (10) Although not discussed in the National Gallery catalog in terms of race, the color of skin and stocking in the pastel recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, dated January 21, 1879 (Fig. 3), is much darker than in the final painting, especially given the light background of the drawing. This makes apparent the degree to which skin tone was made lighter in a pastel dated January 24, 1879, in the Tate Britain, and lighter still in the final picture. In the latter, its warmth is enhanced by the paler lavenders of the costume and especially by the late addition of the surrounding saturated orange pigment. The artificial and somewhat claustrophobic lighting in the oil painting created by the advancing orange serves to modulate the figure's skin color more emphatically to tan. In both the Tate and Getty pastels, the apparent lack of stocking wrinkles (present in the Barber chalk figure study and a black crayon drawing in the Detroit Institute of Arts) makes the dramatically brown legs read more unequivocally as dark skin. Degas was evidently at pains to alter this in the final painting, where, as previously suggested, he alludes in a more equivocal and ambivalent way to the acrobat's multiracial identity.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

What the exhibition at the National Gallery most clearly established is the "sheer confusion" in which Degas sought to "pin down" the architectural structure of the final picture (11) and, one might add, fix his model within his perspective system. The figure of Miss La La that had been formulated in the drawings remained fairly stable, while the architecture was rearranged around her in a hesitating and uncertain manner. The infrared reflectogram created by the National Gallery elucidates the complexity of the evolution of the roof construction by revealing three separate sets of beams, two steeper sets having been painted out. Several alternative positions for windows, arches, and especially columns also appear confusingly in the lower portion of the composition. In the upper left corner of the most elaborate of the architectural studies, a pencil and chalk drawing in the Barber Institute (Fig. 4), the artist wrote that the roof girders were "more slanted [les fermes sont plus/penchees]." Denys Sutton raised the question of whether this drawing, which is squared for enlargement but which has a wider angle than the painting, might have been done in consultation with a professional perspecteur of the type available at the time to lend mathematical advice to painters. In the roof sections of the drawing are what may be corrections in a different color. In his annotated copy of Paul Jamot's monograph on Degas, Walter Sickert had remarked that on his seeing the painting on a visit to his friend's Paris studio, the latter had confessed that he had "been unable to solve the problem of perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling." (12) The National Gallery catalog questions whether the corrected underdrawing of the girders on the canvas itself might also have been done with professional help. Degas's struggle with the perspective of Miss La La has typically been interpreted as evidence of his relentless search for scientific accuracy. Taking another approach, I aim to historicize the...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP