Tag Archives: circus

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