La Grande Parade at the Grand Palais, Paris

12.03.04 to 31.05.04


Antoine Watteau Italian Comedians (1720) National Gallery of Art,Washington DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The marvellous Italian Comedians (1720) by Antoine Watteau faces the entrance to La Grande Parade. Highlighted at the centre of a group of actors by his white silk costume stands the elegant figure of Pierrot, arms pressed to his side with a wistful, sad smile on his moon shaped face. A red curtain has been drawn to one side and the musician strikes up announcing that the show is about to commence - or might it be ending for this weary troupe? Watteau made this picture in London after actors from the Italian Commedia, recently exiled from France, had arrived there. Some commentators suggest that we are witnessing the final curtain in Paris. Adding further to the vague sense of unease in the painting is the resemblance of the isolated Pierrot figure to that of Christ before Pilate in Rembrandt's Ecce Homo. This complexity and uncertainty of meaning extends to the very authorship of the painting itself, which it has been claimed is the work of a later copyist. The mysteries of art and the mysteries of circus entwine in this gem of an image.


Commedia dell'Arte is an appropriate starting point for an exhibition that looks at the relationship between artists and circus, particularly those images that foreground the clown. The exhibition's subtitle 'Portrait of the Artist as Clown', sets a rather dubious agenda of identification by the artist with the clown, which, whilst convincingly demonstrated in some pictures, tends to limit our reading of other works. The exhibition is, however, ambitious in its scope and offers a fairly comprehensive survey of key images within the genre, with some unexpected additional delights.


The commedia theme is further developed in pen and wash drawings from Domenico Tiepolo's Punchinello series (1791-1804). What is really interesting here is that we see not one Punchinello but a whole gang of them. This has the un-nerving effect of turning the costume into a uniform and the mask, like the modern balaclava, offers anonymity to these para-military type figures. The mob of clowns appear again later in the exhibition in a film clip from Victor Sjostrom's little shown but powerful silent film He Who Gets Slapped (1924). The scene opens with a knockabout routine between three clowns which soon gets out of hand as one becomes the victim of the other two's increasingly violent attacks. They are then joined by the clown-mob who run past slapping the victim's face, whilst the audience doubles up with laughter. The scene ends with the victim clown's heart being plucked out and buried beneath the sawdust of the ring to wild applause.


James Ensor The Strange Masks (1892) Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

A macabre and cruel undertow is also very much in evidence in James Ensor's painting The Strange Masks (1892) which shows a group of masked and grotesque revellers caught in the dawn light. As a child Ensor was brought up above his mother's souvenir shop in Ostend, where she sold such costumes and masks, and he seems to have attached to them a lasting terror that pursued him into adult life. Like fairy tales, the circus is a space in which children can engage with their fears in safety, but for some the process becomes suspended and anxieties remain largely unresolved.


Funny faces, facial distortions, and caricatures are closely related and all are represented in this exhibition. Extreme expressions were the object of analysis of the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. On show are three exquisite bronze busts of contorted faces, made around 1770. By way of an explanation of these extraordinary works it is said that Messerschmidt himself suffered from hallucinations and found therapeutic value in depicting his own grimaces. Be this as it may, what strikes us is the objective exactitude and skill with which the facial musculature is rendered. Louis-Leopold Boilly's oil painting Study for Thirty Five Expressions (1825) shows a crowd of insanely distorted faces, at the centre of which is a whiteface clown. This one image is made to stand for the legions of caricatures, but does seem apposite in suggesting that the audience might be a little crazier than the clown!


Laura Knight Great Parade (1928) Newport Art Gallery/ Bridgeman Art Library

I have often read about Dame Laura Knight's circus paintings but never seen one in the flesh, so it was real treat to come across her Great Parade (1928). This large-scale painting was composed from studies she made on frequent visits to Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia. Although not the greatest of figure compositions, it is full of magical light, colour and intriguing incidents observed from life. In contrast to Knight, I felt that the more abstract and formally reductive images in the exhibition generally fail to engage with the narrative and spectacle of circus successfully. Amongst these I would include works by Fortunato Depero and Fernand Leger.


Nadar Adrein Tournachon (1854/5) Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Photographic depictions of clowns retain all the symbolic meaning to be found in paintings of the subject, but also reveal the corporeal existence of the actor beneath. The fabric of costume shares a dual role both as culturally encoded garment and material reality. In Nadar's portraits of the great Pierrot, Adrein Tournachon (1854/5), we study the voluminous white costume, inspecting its seams and creases caught in the bright sunlight. I am struck by how new the costume looks compared with his worn skullcap - maybe having its first outing before of the camera. Beneath the white face makeup applied to his aquiline features I am aware of his pockmarked skin. In one photo he points a plate camera, held on a spindly tripod, back towards us the viewers. This picture seems to encapsulate the subtitle of the exhibition, 'Portrait of the Artist as Clown', as the great showman and entrepreneur Nadar presents Pierrot as his mirror image.


Fernard Pelez, Grimaces and Poverty (Circus People) (1888) Musee du Petit Palais, Paris

The exhibition is organised around certain headings and themes - A New World, Ecco Homo, Monsters and Marvels, A Portrait of the Artist, etc. This is done with a fairly light touch and leaves plenty of space in which to make ones own connections. I would have shuffled the pack a little and also had a 'Circus as Political Allegory' section. This would begin with probably the largest painting in the exhibition, a remarkable work by Fernard Pelez of paraders entitled Grimaces and Poverty (Circus People) (1888). Its triptych format shows a line of weary performers attempting to drum up trade outside a tent. On the left a group of bedraggled children in costume appear to be absolutely exhausted. The eldest girl holds up a card showing the price of admission whilst the little drummer boy falls asleep on his feet. In the centre a whiteface clown acts as spieler, flanked by a dwarf and the tough looking owner. Three elderly and down-at-heal musicians occupy the right hand panel. The style of painting very much resembles that of the American artist Norman Rockwell, though it pre-dates him by three decades. One might take this picture at face value as criticising the working conditions of circus performers, or as an allegory of the enslaved working classes' joyless role in producing the great capitalist roadshow.


A more subtly political picture is Pierrots of Brighton (1915) by Walter Sicket. We associate Sicket with Vaudeville, and indeed in this painting his Pierrots appear on stage in straw boaters, singing and dancing, whilst a female clown accompanies them on an upright piano. From a low viewpoint to the side of the stage we see past the performers to the empty rows of deckchairs arranged in front, and beyond to the promenade and guesthouses bathed in the pink sunset. The suggestion has been made that the empty deckchairs refer us to the missing conscripts and already mounting death toll in the trenches of Flanders. As we often find in pictures of circus, the comedic is used to give added weight to the tragic narrative that is at the core of the image. I am also interested in Sickert's use of an outdoor setting for the performance which seems to offer greater possibilities for narrative development than is to be found in the big top or theatre interior.


Video is displayed in La Grande Parade on plasma screens and the most memorable is certainly Paul McCarthy's clownish satire entitled Painter (1995). It sets out to lampoon the pretensions and double-dealings of the artworld, especially targeting gestural abstract painting of the kind championed by the American art critic Clement Greenberg. McCarthy appears adorned in a large latex nose, a blond wig and is otherwise dressed only in a short blue housecoat and plaid socks. He humps giant tubes of paint from room to room, applying the paint with an equally large paintbrush held between his legs. 'I can't do it' he grunts and later coos 'der-kooning, der-kooning' in a parodic attempt to summons back from the dead the painter Willem De Kooning. The manic quality of the performance carries this section but the sharper satire is to be found in two cut-away scenes; one of a chat show and the other set in a gallery owner's office.


The chat show host interviews an American and a German art collector - all three wear latex noses. The couple are nauseatingly bland and 'nice', holding hands and giving each other reassuring smiles from time to time. They met at the Cologne Art Fair, they inform the interviewer, and they know Gerhard Richter, why they have even been to his studio. Also guesting on the chat show is the artist in his housecoat who sits hunched in angry silence. The anger spills over in the scene set in his gallery owner's office where he demands "where'z-my-money-where'z-my-money-you-know-you-owe-me-lotsamoney-where'z-my-money". She tries to calm him down, informing him that she knows about art and has a PhD, but to no avail and he continues with his incantation and smashing of the office. An absolutely hilarious scene!


Edward Hopper Soir Blue (1914) Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Curators no doubt embark on planning a survey exhibition of this kind with a wish list of works they would like to show, and then have to negotiate and compromise on what is actually made available for loan. I wonder if they might not, for example, have preferred to show the last and great painting made by Edward Hopper Two Comedians (1966), in which he and his wife Jo appear on stage dressed as Pierrot and Pierrette, poignantly taking their last bow, to the large and uncharacteristic Soir Blue (1914) exhibited.


In an exhibition of this kind one is bound to disagree with the inclusion of some works. I cannot see, for example, why Lucian Freud is included at all, let alone with two paintings and a documentary film about him. A naked self-portrait (but for slippers) is shown in the 'self portrait as clown' section and his portrait of the obese Leigh Bowery is displayed in the uncomfortable freaks gallery. Freud is a capable handler of paint but a clumsy handler of iconography, and his work is bereft of the humour and wit that is implied by its inclusion. A better case might have been made for his contemporary Francis Bacon, whose work is also showing in Paris, citing his space-frame arenas and his insistent division of the universe between flesh and all else. On the positive side, there is mercifully only one Cindy Sherman self portrait as clown, though it is used extensively to advertise the exhibition. Sherman looks aggressively towards the camera and seems entirely incapable of the self-irony required to pull this role off. There are disappointing works by artists I have some regard for including hanging aerialists by Louise Bourgeois and George Segal and there is a predictably gormless photograph of Joseph Beuys. But there are wonderful things here as well; a great early Goya of a masked straw boy being tossed in the air by four pretty girls holding a blanket; a Chardin picture of a monkey-painter; Toulouse-Lautrec's portrait of the clownesse Cha-U-Kao; August Sander's resonant photographs of circus artistes; a clip from Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis; Olivier Blanckart and Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux's wild video Clowns, a De Chirico self portrait in period costume, and much else besides. The most notable and inexplicable absence from the exhibition is Federico Fellini whose incomparable creation, the clown Gelsomina in La Strada (1954), played by Giulietta Masina, would alone put him near the top of my list of artists whose imaginations fuse with circus. Fellini observed that '...a good way to go (is) to die from laughing too hard at the clowns in a circus'.


Pablo Picasso Les Saltimbanques at the Races (1905) Pushkin Museum, Moscow

The last gallery in the exhibition is devoted to Harlequin and all the works are by Pablo Picasso. Although Picasso's prodigious output has been reconfigured to fit every conceivable exhibition theme, I am unaware of one dealing exclusively with Picasso and Circus. This is remarkable as he made work throughout his life about circus and commedia. His biographer, John Richardson, tells us that Picasso's first lover was a bareback ballerina in Barcelona, and Gertrude Stein recalls that Picasso made weekly visits to the Cirque Medrano and that he counted the performers amongst his friends. I remember being astonished by the fecundity of ideas and energy shown in Picasso's late sketchbooks, held at the art museum in Arles, whose subject was again mostly Harlequin. It is interesting that he identified more with the complex and worldly figure of Harlequin whilst Watteau chose Pierrot.


Early examples from Picasso's blue and rose periods include the wandering group of circus people shown in Les Saltimbanques (1905) and the erotic dance of Salome, which with good reason he conflated into the circus theme. I was particularly struck by a drawing of the Saltimbanques at the races, and wondered again about the narrative advantages of placing the performers outside in the world. Picasso had a great understanding of man and animals, and the animal in man.


There is a small drawing on display which comes close to finding the perfect parallel between circus and visual art. In Harlequin and Pierrot (1918) Picasso depicts the two adversaries side by side with a single unbroken pencil line. Starting with the hat in the left hand corner, the line swirls through a series of thrilling arabesques finally resting with the foot in the bottom right hand corner. The sense of daring, bravura and physical dexterity shown by the artist seems marvellously to parallel that of the circus performer. We have seen it ... and yet we can hardly believe our eyes!


As we wander towards the exit there is one last thrill awaiting us. As a codicil to the exhibition we come across a film showing the model Circus of Alexander Calder made by Carlos Vilardebo in 1961. I had never paid much attention to Calder's sculptural mobiles, pathetic versions of which one tended to find hung over children's cots in the 70's. But this short film opened my eyes to the marvellously inventive and playful imagination of the man. Since his youth, we learn, Calder had been making his own circus acts from bits of wire, old springs and discarded fabrics. In Brechtian manner we see the aging Calder, ever the artist-ringmaster, kneeling on the carpet manipulating his wire figures whilst his wife plays the role of his beautiful assistant. Using a primitive but effective combination of springs and hooks, the propelled aerialist somersaults and catches the vacant trapeze, eliciting gasps and applause from the audience, with sound effects by Calder. Placing his large red face next to the small rag lion, Calder provides a convincing roar. An accident occurs and the injured performer is rushed off on a make shift stretcher. A small dog runs between the wheels of a carriage. Some people might consider Calder's enterprise childish, eccentric or a little unhinged, but to take such a po-faced view of the world would be to deny oneself the joys and revelations of both art and circus.

© John Goto


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La Grande Parade was first exhibited at the Grand Palais, Paris 12.03.04 to 31.05.04, then at Musee des Beaux-Arts du Canada, Ottawa, 25.6.04 - 19.9.04. A fully illustrated hardback book in French, 422 pages, is published to accompany the exhibition by Editions Gallimard, ISBN 2-07-011782-0 price 59 Euros. In English The Great Parade is published by Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-10375-1


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