Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Pablo Picasso!

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I just ran across this photo of Pablo Picasso (October 25, 1881 – April 8, 1973) made up as a clown and, since it's his 128th birthday this month, I thought I'd include it with some of his circus paintings. The photo accompanied an article titled "Artists and Clowns" by Albert Faurot from the Third Quarter, 1963 edition of Silliman Journal. (No pun intended; that's a university in the Philippines!) Note that at the time of writing Picasso still had ten years to live.

Though I might argue with some of its interpretations, the article's interesting enough, so I've excerpted the section about Picasso and the circus for you:

Circus clowns became a favorite subject for the French school of writers, painters and musicians gathered in Paris, early in the twentieth century. Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, and Max Jacob used to make weekly visits together to the circus. Buffoonery and clowning became a form of expression for many artists, both in their lives and in their art…

Picasso... is an inveterate tease, mimic and entertainer; so much so that one is never quite sure which of his paintings were done with tongue in cheek.
The brief art movement which called itself Dada was an acting out in art of the clown spirit, featuring the incongruous, the irrational, the banal.

The circus became and remained a dominant theme in French art for many years. Yet it is a curious fact that few artists succeeded in recording the actual glory of the clown's profession, his laughter-making fun. Exceptions are the gay, brilliant paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, and occasional works by Seurat, Signac, Degas, Dufy and Mattise. Popular as the circus was with artists, it is the clown sans masque who is the subject of their greatest art.

Around the circus figures which he saw each week at the Cirque Medrano, Pablo Picasso wove a private life of his own imagining. In a series of paintings in the soft blue and rose colors of his early periods, he showed circus families in varied groupings: a mother combing her hair, while a father in clown suit looks on, holding a tiny child; a seated acrobat watching his little girl spin a ball with her feet. The figures are invariably sober, often sad, and succeed vividly in contrasting professional gaiety with private gravity. On the one hand are the symbolic costumes, bright and varied even when mellowed to the prevailing rose or blue. On the other hand are the painfully attenuated figures, suggesting near starvation, the stark, immobile, emotionless faces, without masks or make-up.

One of these paintings, called Saltimbanques, inspired the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, to compose his famous fifth Duino Elegy. The picture shows a family of acrobats standing rather awkwardly about in a moment of repose that is heavy with fatigue and futility. Rilke asks, "But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves?" The grim harshness and futility of their lives is his theme. He compares their rigid training to mankind’s experiences in life, which make up "the full emptiness of life, and lead to the empty fulfillment of death." He longs for a place where these may find rest from their climbing and leaping, their towers and ladders, their empty grins, and knows that there is none.

Circus figures soon disappeared from Picasso's paintings, but Commedia dell' Arte clowns continue to appear down to the present time. One of the earliest pictures is called "Harlequin's Death Bed." Here it is the beauty of the scene, rather than the tragedy
, which informs the dainty, elegant picture. The dying clown lies calmly and gracefully in his lozenged tights, hnds folded in prayer, while wife and child look on. A soft radiance, almost like a halo, surrounds the three figures.

Harlequin plays a peculiar role in the Picasso oeuvre. He recurs frequently throughout the almost fifty years of painting, and always he is treated in a conventional, representational manner, no matter how wildly distorted the other paintings of the period may be. All the harlequins have a dignified composure quite out of keeping with the traditional character of the original naughty, scampering clown. They are among the most beautiful paintings, restrained yet glowing in color, with firm, elegant line. Many of them are actual portraits of Picasso's friends or his children. It is said that he keeps a harlequin suit on hand and dresses his friends up in it for sittings. The sadness of the early clowns is gone, and the sly humor of the cubist paintings and the sculpture are entirely absent. It is as though Picasso, the incorrigible comic, here wished to show the world that, though his appearance was clownish, he was at heart a courtly, kindly gentleman.


1 comment:

ernalve said...

Nice post John, I was just thinking about Picasso's clown paintings and found this in your blog. I enjoyed this paintings a lot while visitings the museums in NY, but the one I liked the most ("Three musicians") contradicts the idea that clowns were only painted by Picasso in a representational manner. In fact, there is Pierrot and Harlequin there painted in a joyful cubist manner:

Some weeks ago I learned that Picasso painted the curtain for the ballet Parade... I'm really interested in knowing more about this. Do you have info about this? I'm interested because Finzi Pasca's company is staging "La Veritá" with a curtain painted by Dalí in Montevideo and I wanted to do some research on this subject.

Good day!