In 1879, the artist Edgar Degas attended a performance at the Cirque Fernando in Paris where he was dazzled by an acrobat known as Miss La La.
Born in Prussia to a black father and white mother, Miss La La—real name Olga Kaira—was a star of the European circus in the late 19th century. As part of the sensational act that made her famous, she would dangle from a trapeze while clenching a suspended canon in her teeth. For the grand finale, the canon was fired—with Miss La La still biting down.
Degas studied Miss La La with the same appraising eye that he fixed upon the young ballerinas whom he painted obsessively. He returned to the show three more times to sketch Miss La La, capturing the contortions of her body, her elegance, her strength. The final painting, “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” does not depict Miss Lala’s famed canon act, but instead shows her being pulled up to the ceiling by a rope that she grips in her astonishingly powerful jaws. Degas rendered Miss La La as her audience would have seen her: from below, soaring through the air.
“Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando” is the centerpiece of Circus! Show of Shows, a new exhibition at the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, England. The exhibition celebrates the lesser-known histories of the circus, with a particular focus on women and black performers who, like Miss La La, found an unusual degree of independence and professional success in the ring. Circus! Show of Shows also highlights the genre’s little known, but formative ties to the United Kingdom; this year, in fact, marks the 250th anniversary of the circus in Great Britain…
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