While the Cirque du Soleil have been delighting Birmingham audiences with their acrobatic skills at Star City, another distinguished circus artist has quietly taken up residence at the Barber Institute.
Miss La La was a 19th century acrobat of mixed European and African parentage who performed all over Europe. In January 1879 she caused a sensation while appearing with her troupe, Kaira, at the Cirque Fernando in Paris.
A month later she would repeat her remarkable performance, which included being suspended high in the air by her teeth, in London. But it was the Paris appearance which was immortalised, because it attracted the attention of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
His painting of her, shown in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in the spring of 1879, was eventually acquired by the National Gallery, while the Barber Institute has two of the preparatory drawings Degas made for it. The small exhibition now showing at the Barber reunites them for the first time since they were together in the artist?s studio.
In his art Degas is himself something of a showman. With the deftness of a conjuror he creates the illusion of spontaneous modernity associated with photography through the studied preparation of the old masters, and many pencil and pastel drawings are known for this particular painting.
The two in the Barber collection are studies of the figure of La La, seen in an unusual foreshortened perspective from below, and of the architectural background, again seen in steep perspective.
There is evidence that the architectural perspective caused Degas some difficulty, and in fact it is not all that convincing in the finished painting. It has even been suggested that he may have hired a draughtsman to make the architectural study, but if that were the case you would surely expect greater evidence of specialist skill.
A fascinating detail of this drawing is a sketch in the corner giving a more accurate idea of the relationship of the three rafters (reduced to two in the painting), with the written note that they are ?more slanting?.
In addition to the painting and the two Barber drawings, the exhibition includes a further study of the figure, a pastel lent by the Tate, which shows Degas experimenting with a different arrangement of the legs.
However, the figure in the painting is closely based on the Barber drawing.
There are also two modern forensic studies of the painting, an X-ray and an infra-red reflectogram, which reveal various changes Degas made while working on the canvas, mostly to do with that troublesome architecture rather than the figure.
The details of all this are explained in the excellent free-sheet avilable in the exhibition, making this a model microscopic study of the genesis of one Impressionsit masterpiece.
Following an earlier re-hang of the Barber?s permanent collection which attempted to illuminate the difference between masterpieces and relative lame ducks (very few in number, and rarely seen), Space versus Surface: Ilusionism and Abstraction in Art is another presentation of the collection which aims to divide sheep from goats in a different way.
The Barber?s director, Richard Verdi, sets out to show how abstract principles motivated artists well before the 20th century, with art always oscillating between the poles of abstraction and illusionism.
Paintings are brought together in small groups to illustrate subthemes, beginning with symmetry and including such devices as ?the frame within a frame?.
The argument is again well documented in a free-sheet, and even if it doesn?t always convince it?s a useful stimulus for looking at these works afresh. Mostly, though, it?s an opportunity to enjoy some unusual juxtapositions (the 17th century still life painter Baschenis alongside Leger, for example). The theme of painting as music brings a stunning 19th century triptych of Rossetti, Whistler and Manet, the last moved for the first time from its usual location.
The knock-on effect of the rehang also leads to some vibrant juxtapositions in the following galleries. Purists who insist on display by chronology or national school seem to be an endangered species these days, but whatever the philosphical debate, the Barber?s collection has never looked better.
* Reunited: Degas and Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando until May 15; Space versus Surface: Illusionism and Abstraction in Art until May 2 ( Mon- Sat 10am- 5pm, Sun noon-5pm).