Friday 5 November 2021

Miss La La

I've often admired this extraordinary painting  – Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando – in the National Gallery. With its neck-cricking viewpoint and awkward pose, not to mention the complex structure of the circus dome, it was a fantastically difficult subject, even for Degas, who made numerous sketches and studies before arriving at the final picture. 
  I must admit I had never wondered who Miss La La was – until today, when I came across a potted biography of her on a Facebook site. She was born Olga Brown in Szczecin, then German/Prussian territory, now in Poland. Her father was black and her mother white, and she began her circus career at the age of nine. Miss La La achieved great success as an aerialist, trapeze artist and human cannon ball, but her most impressive acts depended on the prodigious strength of her teeth and jaws: being pulled up to the full height of a circus dome, as in Degas's painting, while hanging on with her teeth only; hoisting people up by the same means; and hanging upside down from a trapeze while clenching a chain bearing a firing cannon between her teeth.
  In 1888 Olga married an African-American contortionist and had three children, then disappeared into obscurity, dying some time after 1919. She has her immortality, thanks to Degas.

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