Circus Scenes in Art – A Tightrope Between Vibrancy and Melancholy

20 Sep

Der Himmel über Berlin

Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire” (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) perfectly encapsulated my vision of circus. It is a beautiful film, one of my all time favourites, and even though the circus is not its main theme, it is the most poignant to me. What’s not to like about this film; slow tempo, alienating mood, greyness of Berlin streets and buildings, everyday sadness that seems poetic seen through the eyes of the Angel, old man vainly looking for Potsdamer Platz but finding only the wall covered in graffiti, depressed people in U-Bahns, a sad young man who commits suicide by jumping from the top of the Europa Centar at Kudamm thinking to himself “The East is everywhere”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds having a gig at a smoky club, also The Crime and the City Solution, and finally – the lonely trapeze artist Marion who “waited an eternity to hear a loving word”. The most beautiful scene in the film, for me (you can see it on YouTube) is when Marion sits on top of the car, wistful and lonely, with her angel wings, thinking about past and future because the circus, an elephant sadly trumpets, and the guy starts playing a sad melody on accordion. So beautiful, dreamy and nostalgic.

Der Himmel über Berlin

There’s this duality of circus that intoxicates me. Everything is an illusion, just like in cabarets, theatres, nightclubs, parties, Moulin Rouge etc. On one hand, there’s the cheerful vibrancy; striped red-white tent, trapeze artist in shiny pink costume, wide smiled doing acrobatics, laughter and clapping, clowns, tightrope walkers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, animals, lions, crocodiles, elephants, trained to do tricks against their will. On the other hand, there’s the grey reality after the performance. These artists seem to live for the show, but about life after it? Exhausted people returning to their trailors, doing the same thing every night to a different crowd, from one town to the next. When the audience finally leaves, when the candy-floss and popcorn have been sold, when silent night descends, what remains – solitude and melancholy.

There’s such sadness and transience in seeing posters all over the town for an event that has passed becoming paler, chipped and torn as each day passes until one day, a new set of shiny bright posters replace them. Circus theme is present in the film Coralina (2009) where the old Russian guy in the attic perseveres in teaching mice to do tricks; in reality he fails to do so, but in the “other world” his circus is the stuff that dreams are made of. In Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Sabina is a painter and the scenes she paints always have a duality about them; red velvet curtains that reveal a different whimsical world. There’s always this duality about circus and theatre; glitter and sadness, tears and laughter, ecstasy and melancholy, all tangled together, inseparable.

Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879

It is easy to understand why all those painters were drawn to the fanciful world of circus, theatre and the clowns, from Antoine Watteau who portrayed the sad, melancholy Pierrot in the most humane, poignant way, to Goya, Picasso, Renoir, Seurat, Federico Beltran Masses, Marc Chagall, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Laura Knight and many others. Firstly, the circus was a visually fascinating place, all the vibrant colours, interesting faces and shining costumes, dynamic and the movement are so easy to capture on paper, you needn’t search for a particular motif, it is right there in front of your eyes, paint a clown or a trapeze artist. Secondly, circus performers were people alienated from the rest of the “normal” society and that makes them similar to painters from Montmarte and Montparnasse. They both had the outsider appeal which drew them together, they both felt all too well the fragility and beauty of living on the margins of society. And thirdly, a painter paints a world of his own on his canvases and a circus is already a world of its own; Marc Chagall’s art is really unique in how playful and imaginative it is, we can really call it “Chagall’s world” because it doesn’t exist anywhere else but on his canvases (and first in his mind, naturally) and likewise, the world of circus only exists under the striped red and white tent, only on specific days, in certain evening hours, so it is like a dream, and dreams always end. I will not comment specifically about each painting, but I hope you enjoy this little selection of circus scenes in art which I love.

Georges Seurat, English Circus Sideshow, 1887-88

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rider On A White Horse, 1888, pastel and gouache

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Circus Fernando, the rider, 1888

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the circus work in the ring, 1899

Georges Seurat, The Circus, 1891

Laura Knight, The Fair, 1919

Federico Beltran Massess, Circus (El Circo), c. 1920s

Laura Knight, Circus Matinee, 1938

Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, The Dance and the Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, Couple au cirque 1981

13 Responses to “Circus Scenes in Art – A Tightrope Between Vibrancy and Melancholy”

  1. Upside-down Land 21st Sep 2020 at 10:59 am #

    Thanks for the vibrant presentation of the circus and its duality and outsider status. I look forward to renting Wings of Desire from my local dvd store (video streaming is erasing such works). I have always found Toulouse-Lautrec’s circus work particularly vibrant and captivating. I must confess to not caring for Renoir and Chagall. I can appreciate their popularity, but I see in their work something superficial that repels me. Memories of circuses I saw in the 50s and early 60s loom large in my mind. They were a wonder and made quite an impression on me. My LSD experiences in the 70s reminded me of my earliest circuses. My reaction to those first circus experiences was a sense of wonder that the world was weirder than I thought. Thanks for being a catalyst to my memory retrieval.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 21st Sep 2020 at 9:31 pm #

      Chagall’s art appealed to me the moment I saw it but even more so after I had read his autobiography, he seems like a very childlike, humble and modest person. “A sense of wonder that the world was weirder than I thought”, that sounds like a fascinating feeling to explore in a novel. I went to circus once with my grandma and what I loved the most was the crocodile and candy floss hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Hill 21st Sep 2020 at 1:36 pm #

    Those cone-headed clowns used to freak me out when I was a child, they still do !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 21st Sep 2020 at 9:05 pm #

      If I walked home at night and saw a cloud in the distance, standing under a street lamp perhaps, I’d walk away that instant!


  3. smilla72 3rd Oct 2020 at 2:54 pm #

    Hi Byron’s muse. Again you have succeeded in diving into the core of your topic. Seriously: your essays should be published! Currently publishing houses are in a crisis and I fear that digitalization will make it even more difficult for an author to sell printed books. But keep an open eye: opportunities will arise and I am sure that you will find a proofreader with an open heart for talents like you… I was myself proofreader for 14 years and there was just one female author with a talent comparable to yours. She did not write easy stuff but her two books sold well. This said I’d like to thank you not only for this beautiful essay about the essence but circus but also for reminding me that I’ve never seen so far one of the most famous European movies of the second half of the 20th century: Der Himmel über Berlin. I think the reason for this is that… no there is no excuse! I want to close this modest comment by pointing out that Ingmar Bergman has also made a poignant movie about circus: Gycklarnas Afton (could be translated by « The night of the circus people ») from 1953. Bergman probably even more than Wenders creates an unforgettable, tragic atmosphere with images that you will never forget. He dives very deep into soul of circus people. Let’s not forget the most famous opera about circus: « I Pagliacci » by Leoncavallo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 3rd Oct 2020 at 9:35 pm #

      Why, thank you for all those compliments!!! I think too that there is no excuse not to watch Der Himmel uber Berlin! And I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, if you do decide to watch it soon. I haven’t watched that Bergman film, nor any other Bergman film, not yet. Thank you for commenting and reading!


  4. smilla72 18th Oct 2020 at 9:02 am #

    Hi Byron’s muse. As promised, I give you my thoughts about « Der Himmel über Berlin » now that I’ve watched the movie on DVD (I know, I am old-fashioned..). Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander are amazing but Solveig Dommartin is not only amazing, she is ravishing. Which convinced bachelor would not want to marry such a girl? I have to admit that I did not like the presence of Peter Falk. The script is very challenging, it may be too intellectual for a « common » cinephile. Personally I like very much the slowness and stylistic purity of the movie. Berlin is ugly and beautiful in the same time. There are many unforgettable scenes in the movie like Bruno Ganz standing at the top of the destructed Gedächtniskirche and only children seeing him from the bus or from the street. Nick Cave’s presence is comparable to David Bowie’s presence in « Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo ». I prefer David Bowie though. I think Bowie has also starred in a movie where he is a sort of angel coming to earth. Does anybody know this movie or am I totally mistaken? Watching the movie has reminded me two other movies that I like very much: « Melancholia » by Lars von Trier and « Immortal » by Enki Bilal with the incredible former Miss France Linda Hardy. I think there are many parallels between the three movies. « Der Himmel über Berlin » is a powerful reflection on Germany’s history not only in the 20th century but I think most major German movies der Nachkriegszeit deal with guilt in general (like Scandinavian movies). For me Damiel/Bruno Ganz in this movie embodies not only an angel or guardian angel. Then we could not really relate to him. He embodies the « pure spirit », the « der reine Geist » who comes to realize that life is not just about beautiful words and moral purity and intellectual perfection but about imperfection and that imperfection give life its value. So the « pure spirit » has to come down and become « human »!! I learned this lesson very late in my life!!!!! It’s a melancholic but also passionate movie about the unbridgeable gap between Phantasy and reality. Really unbridgeable? Damiel manages to get rid of his wings. He cones to enjoy the simple joys of life like a currywurst and coffee from an Imbissbude. I was Damiel in my past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 18th Oct 2020 at 6:42 pm #

      I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said! I love the slowness of the film and the way it presents Berlin as poetic and ugly and gray at the same time, the usual and the everyday seems poetic through the film lens. I do like Peter Falk’s presence in the film, I must say. Marion the trapeze artist is ravishing indeed! I love her performance and the fact that she studied all that just for the film performance. I also love the way the film transitions from black and white to colour when the Angel becomes human. Thank you for commenting and I am so glad you decided to watch the film!


    • Upside-down Land 18th Oct 2020 at 7:04 pm #

      The Man Who Fell to Earth – Bowie

      Liked by 1 person

  5. smilla72 24th Oct 2020 at 9:35 am #

    So this will be a very personal comment (my third about « Der Himmel über Berlin »). First of all: thanks for mentioning the title of that Bowie movie! Yesterday I watched « Der Himmel über Berlin » again because I really needed to « come down » to earth again (like Damiel). And the movie helped me to get « earthy » again. Because that is my true nature: sensuel, loving all the little delights of life, enjoying the moment, getting rid of « intellectualism » and becoming a « child » again (in the Nietzschean sense!!). Damiel constantly refers to the spontaneous being of children. And consequently I watched the movie without being concentrated on the (very demanding) script. I just enjoyed the images and the music. I am down to earth again. The movie reminded me that we should not worry too much about the future, that we should not check news and mails constantly. There are two other Berlin movies that guide me through life. « Lola rennt » is quite the opposite of « Der Himmel.. »: it’s about a girl who risks everything in order to save her beloved. Life is serious. As much as we should enjoy it, we should be constantly ready to fight! It would be nice to see an essay about this movie on this blog. The third movie is (you guessed it) « Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo ». This movie constantly warns me: « Don’t touch drugs!! ». Well I did it twice (in Amsterdam 2010 and 2018) and I am planning to do it again. So I need that movie and perhaps more than that movie to remain strong enough not to give in to despair. I would appreciate your opinion about this comment. Thanks


    • Byron's Muse 24th Oct 2020 at 7:15 pm #

      I haven’t seen that film “Lola rennt”. If Der Himmel uber Berlin helped you to be get grounded and enjoy everything like a child would, where is the despair? You can do whatever you want, it’s your life, and if that includes drugs in Amsterdam, so be it. Who am I to stop you? I would prefer you wouldn’t because you don’t need it and you can find strength and happiness within.


      • smilla72 25th Oct 2020 at 6:02 am #

        Thanks for your comment! I am strongly committed to life and I will fight for the values of life till the end of my life. I needed some warm words. Your blog is amazing! I will not go to Amsterdam. And besides: that were very soft drugs🙏🌻

        Liked by 1 person

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