Circus Figures Wreathed in Mystery

In the context of the exhibition Devouring Paris. Picasso 1900-1907, co-produced with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, we invited Edwin Becker, Head of Exhibitions at the Van Gogh, to tell us about his favourite work in the show and why he likes it. Becker also offered us his vision of the Paris that Picasso would have found at the beginning of the twentieth century, in a brief interview in our Summer Capsules.

“In an exhibition, I always try to show the importance of the present and establish relationships with it. Of course it is wonderful to admire the art treasures of the past, the features of a movement or images of an era, but it is much more interesting to relate artworks to present-day events, trends and themes, or even to other works of different periods or in other media.

When I evoke the modest and magnificent pictures of acrobats of Picasso’s Rose Period, such as the one with an old man playing a hurdy gurdy, with the harlequin, painted in pastel tones, on loan to the exhibition Devouring Paris. Picasso 1900-1907 at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona from the Kunsthaus Zürich, I perceive many similarities that move me or surprise me.

Hurdy Gurdy Player and Young Harlequin, 1905, Kunsthaus Zürich

In contemplating Picasso’s poor circus artistes, what immediately came to my mind was the 2010-2011 exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Illusions of Reality: Naturalist Painting, Photography and Cinema, 1875-1918, and in particular the very large canvas Grimaces and Misery by Pelez. It is true that Pelez’s almost hyperrealist technique is completely different from the technique in the Picasso picture, but the fascination with characters on the margins of society and the nostalgic appeal of poverty is the same, and has the same intensity. Three very different clowns claim our attention in the central section; on the left, four very young acrobats, no more than children, look out at us with sad eyes, and finally, on the right we see a group of old musicians, perplexed and staring into space.

Picasso was also moved by introspective circus performers, but he was not so attracted to the glamorous side of the circus, with its trapeze artistes, trained horses and happy clowns. The travelling circus performer becomes a symbol of the artist, who also seeks recognition through his art (his tricks) and has to confront a stern reality.

Fernand Pelez, Grimaces and Misery, 1888, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris

At the same time, this motive of the circus performer with a touch of melancholy really made me think of a fascinating American series that was being shown on Dutch television at that time, Carnivàle, which showed the strange and solitary world of acrobats and travelling performers, and also, more recently, the Dutch film Calimucho, which deals with a similar theme.

Scene from Carnivàle, 2003

The protagonist of Carnivàle, Ben Hawkins, is immersed in a world of bizarre characters who travel around the United States with a circus during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The combination of a fascination with the dramas behind the scenes and the mysterious and mystical connotations, such as magic, are perfectly in tune with the mood we find in Picasso, who, influenced by his friends the writers Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, also came into contact with the dark and magical aspects of the circus and its symbolism.

But isn’t all this too nostalgic? Doesn’t it raise too many questions and leave the viewer confused? In many cases, it certainly does. But that precisely is its great strength: evoking mysteries without explaining them in detail surely strikes a chord in the sympathetic observer. This is the merit of these artworks and these films, which through these themes were able to address feelings that belong to all times — timeless feelings.”

Edwin Becker
Head of Exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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