Discover Degas & Miss La La; Nan Goldin: Sisters, Saints, Sibyls – review

<span>At the Circus Fernando, 1879, by Edgar Degas.</span><span>Photograph: © INHA digital library</span>
At the Circus Fernando, 1879, by Edgar Degas.Photograph: © INHA digital library

What can an image really tell us of a person? Two new shows turn upon that evergreen question. The National Gallery’s latest exhibition is ostensibly about one of Degas’s most famous subjects, Miss La La, Paris circus star, drawn and painted by him many times but to exactly what effect? Nan Goldin’s convulsive memorial to her dead sister, meanwhile questions the very truthfulness of photographs.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, Degas’s breathtaking 1879 masterpiece, looks entirely spontaneous. Here is the celebrated acrobat dangling high above the unseen crowd, satin costume flickering lilac in the limelight, arms outstretched like a dancer. She is suspended from a rope held through the sheer iron-jaw strength of her teeth. This spectacular performance is matched by the daring of Degas’s composition, as if he too was somewhere up there, just below the soles of her silky shoes, hanging mid-air in the moment. You would scarcely think this was the work of many days sketching at the circus and painting in the studio. Degas even hired an architectural draughtsman to elucidate the principles of the Cirque Fernando dome.

But is it useful to know all this? Most of the many sketches, pastels and paintings are on show at the National Gallery, in an exemplary presentation of Degas’s thinking and method (accompanied by a superb catalogue). We learn that Miss La La – born Anna Albertine Olga Brown in what is now Poland in 1858 to a German-Russian mother and an African American father – actually came to Degas’s studio to pose. There are changes of costume, colour and position. The curators have established the time taken to make the finished masterpiece – not more than four months.

Her silvery shoes: what colour were they really? Consult Renoir’s portrait of two young Cirque Fernando acrobats, alongside, and you discover that the slippers were actually gold. And that her shining costume – lilac against the terracotta and pistachio dome – was in reality white. Degas is painting the ever-changing effects of light, to be sure, but what you are really learning is what you already knew – that art is art.

Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Braque were among the many other artists to paint the Cirque. It was not the least of the management’s genius to invite them to afternoon rehearsals. The National Gallery has paintings of English circuses too – Duncan Grant’s lavender-coloured elephant flailing round the big top; Sickert’s tiny trapeze artist lost in the highwire stratosphere, in homage to his friend Degas; Sickert’s (third) wife Thérèse Lessore, painting a trio of acrobats on swings, repeated as shadows in a circular spotlight.

But neither circuses, nor Degas, are entirely the point. The show really wants to introduce us to Miss La La, one of only two black subjects in his art. There is coat-trailing talk of Degas’s white Creole mother, his youthful trip to New Orleans, the black people he might have seen there (but never painted). And there is Olga Brown herself.

And the ultimate gift she brings to this show is the admission to the National Gallery of enthralling period photographs. Here she is in daguerreotype, carte-de-visite, albumen silver print and even, c1938, a grid of passport-style shots. It could be a concise history of early photography, and more. She’s in fringed costume and tights, but also in crinoline, feathered trilby, 1930s crepe suit. She is solo, her exceptional strength and agility prefiguring those of an Olympic gymnast; she poses with her African American husband and daughter. She is a model of intense professionalism, poise and dignity.

The sight of Olga Brown, in person, is far more powerful than Degas’s images. But the artist is not painting her portrait. Her face is no more visible than her personality in these scenes, even though you have to look up to her, sky-high among the gilded curlicues, dark windows and bright air: the point is not the woman but the vision of her staggering feat.

It would be hard to think of a better place to show Nan Goldin’s exceptionally moving tribute to her sister Barbara (1946-65) than in the old Welsh Chapel and former Limelight Club at 83 Charing Cross Road. A slideshow of photographs, perfectly choreographed on three screens, and in three acts, with narration by Goldin and a soundtrack that runs from choral music to Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, Sisters, Saints and Sibyls moves between oratorio, disquisition and thrumming, out-of-your head darkness.

Its first act tells the appallingly short life of Barbara, drawing analogies between the American girl and her early Christian namesake, Saint Barbara, both of them locked away by a parent (hence the allusive triptych). But where Barbara was tortured for her faith by a pagan father, Goldin’s sister was repeatedly institutionalised by her mother, for what, exactly? Liking boys, liking girls, cutting her arms, anxiety, late hours, rebelling against a woman who wanted a “normal” daughter? Nobody watching this now could fail to recognise – in tears, for me – a whole generation of teenage girls.

Family photographs show many perfect Barbaras, trying hard to please the camera, until they fade out as she turns 13, to be replaced with bleak wards and hospital facilities. These will have exact counterparts in the second act, as Nan Goldin goes in and out of rehab, relapsing over and again in the New York of her photographs, a demimonde of beautiful clubbers, performers and junkies. Shots of a train line show the spot where Barbara – who told a doctor she no longer had a home – killed herself at the age of 18.

The solitude, even in a throng, that pervades Goldin’s own photographs is there in those early images of Barbara. Medical reports describe her as “an attractive, extremely intense young female”, and there are suggestions that Nan may go the same way. But their stories do not converge, or at least Goldin does not examine them except through this echoing of images. Nor does she seem to question the sentimental photograph, clearly taken by her mother, of the family gathered around Barbara’s grave.

Goldin’s characteristic self-exposure, sometimes running to narcissism, finds a true and tragic purpose in this memorial to Barbara. Never has Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt seemed more like an agonising farewell; never have playground photographs seemed quite so poignant. Goldin has found a way of turning still images into something like a cinematic portrait, its nearly overwhelming power leavened by her own flat intonation, especially of one doctor’s words: “It is Mrs Goldin who should be in the hospital.”

Star ratings (out of five):
Discover Degas & Miss La L
a ★★★
Nan Goldin: Sisters, Saints, Sibyls ★★★★