Saturday, January 30, 2016

John Keene: from art show visit to blog entry to a black aerialist story

An Edgar Degas sketch of Miss La La
In the spring of 2013, John Keene wrote about a series of art shows that he visited at J. P. Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. For one, the library commemorated the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. The museum also mounted an exhibit of works, including sketchbooks, from the artist Edgar Degas, and the museum featuring an exhibit "Drawing Surrealism."

What makes Keene's blog entry particularly notable for me in retrospect is that he was then writing about Degas's famous painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. Degas's painting of the aerialist Miss La La (Anna Olga Albertina Brown) would become the subject of  Keene's story "Acrobatique" in his collection Counternarratives (2015). Back in 2013, Keene described the experience of viewing Degas's work on the acrobat:
The preparatory drawings, pastels, and paintings of Miss La La are offered their own considerable beauty, and it was thrilling to move along the wall and note how Degas was working up towards the extraordinary painting, "Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando" (oil on canvas, 1879, National Gallery, UK), that resulted, though interestingly, Miss La La's racial identity is less evident in the final work that in the preparatory ones. What one notices in that final image is her floating form, inspired in part by religious iconography Degas was quite familiar with, as well as other circus images by peers, and that almost glowing, orange vault of ceiling and the arches and pillars holding them up, as carefully poised as the aerialist herself.
Keene went on to note that "The exhibit did not say what happened to" Miss La La, and observes that "Had I the time I'd spend a bit of it trying to learn what happened to her." 

Turns out that Keene did find the some time to think about and imagine Miss La La's experiences, and her encounter with Degas, which is evident from his story "Acrobatique." For Keene, the process involved art show visit to blog entry to a short story about a black aerialist. My own process went in the reverse order. I read then blogged Keene's story; next I discovered his blog entry "Proust/Degas/Surrealist Drawing @ the Morgan Library," and finally I ended up reviewing Morgan Library & Musem's online collections of Degas's sketchbooks.     

I'm certain considerable thinking and drafting occurred between Keene's blog entry and the completion of his story. Still, thinking about his process is giving me ideas about an assignment for students where they first visit an exhibit, produce observations about what they viewed in one format, and then, in another mode of writing, expound on "what happened" to a person or object that may have been absent from the exhibit.   

John Keene's "Acrobatique" and the poet as short story writer
A notebook on John Keene

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