Tag Archives: Post-Impressionism

Maurice Prendergast – Two Women Crossing a Field

18 Jul

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing”

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook – Two women crossing a field, 1895-97, watercolour

Two ladies in white dresses are walking through a yellow field. With their dainty parasols and elegant hats they almost look like porcelain dolls. The scene is closely cropped and we don’t get to see much of the nature around them. We don’t even see the sky the way we do in similar paintings by Claude Monet. Instead of a detailed portrayal of clouds and grass, Prendergast focuses on the intense yellowness of the field and offers us a sketchy but joyous scene in nature. The summer’s ripeness and vibrancy are at their peak. The lady’s red sash is dancing in the wind and its vibrant red colour contrasts beautifully with the yellow and white. Prendergast wonderfully masters the colour scheme where each colour brings out the vibrancy of the other. All of Prendergast’s watercolours have an uplifting effect on me and I really love how he wasn’t shy about using all the rich shades of colours. His love of raw, bright colours and flatness comes from his years of working in commercial arts. The watercolour sketches in the Boston sketchbook were all made after his return from Paris where he was introduced to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, but despite all these influences Prendergast returned to America with a vision of art that was playful, childlike, vibrant and completely his own. He took the Impressionist motives of leisure and nature but decided to portray them in the medium of watercolours instead of the traditional oil on canvas. This particular sunny, summery watercolour has been on my mind for a long time now and I thought what better time to write about this lovely watercolour than in the warm, yellow month of July? To end, here is a very fitting poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Sensation”:

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure

23 Apr

“He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.”

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, October 1888

This post will be my final one (for now at least….) featuring wonderful passages from Irving Stone’s romanticised biography about the life and struggles of Vincent van Gogh: “Lust for Life”, originally published in 1934. I really love the book and I reread it this spring and I feel that it is truly too beautiful not to be shared! I already have a post about the sun, heat and vibrant colours of Arles, and posts about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? What is it that drives me to persist with it, despite constant failure? Vincent is asking himself that and the answer is a very beautiful one and I think all artists should be inspired by it. Indeed, my artist friend loves the quote as well. I think inspiration for creating art should be intrinsic, it has to be the fire within that drives one to create, if one is doing it to please someone else, to gain admiration, approval, praise or popularity, then it’s just not going to work. And now here is the quote:

The hot sun built up his vitality, even though his stomach was getting little attention. In place of sane food he put absinthe, tobacco, and Daudet’s tales of Tartarin. His innumerable hours of concentration before the easel rubbed his nerves raw. He needed stimulants. The absinthe made him all the more excited for the following day, an excitement whipped by the mistral and baked into him by the sun.

As the summer advanced, everything became burnt up. He saw about him nothing but old gold, bronze and copper, covered by a greenish azure sky of blanched heat. There was sulphur-yellow on everything the sunlight hit. His canvases were masses of bright burning yellow. He knew that yellow had not been used in European painting since the Renaissance, but that did not deter him. The yellow pigment oozed out of the tubes onto the canvas, and there it stayed. His pictures were sun steeped, sun burnt, tanned with the burning sun and swept with air.

He was convinced that it was no more easy to make a good picture than it was to find a diamond or a pearl. He was dissatisfied with himself and what he was doing, but he had just a glimmer of hope that it was going to be better in the end. Sometimes even that hope seemed a Fata Morgana. Yet the only time he felt alive was when he was slogging at his work. Of personal life, he had none. He was just a mechanism, a blind painting automaton that had food, liquid, and paint poured into it each morning, and by nightfall turned out a finished canvas.

And for what purpose? For sale? Certainly not! He knew that nobody wanted to buy his pictures. Then what was the hurry? Why did he drive and spur himself to paint dozens and dozens of canvases when the space under his miserable, brass bed was already piled nearly solid with paintings?

The desire to succeed had left Vincent. He worked because he had to, because it kept him from suffering too much mentally, because it distracted his mind. He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life—the power and ability to create.

Et in arcadia ego: Guercino and Gauguin – 700th Post!

14 Apr

Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892

Paul Gauguin’s painting “Spirit of the Dead Watching” and Guercino’s painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” have much more in common than one might assume at first sight. Guercino’s painting is a strange mix of the pastoral idyll and the dark motif of memento mori. The dark and foreboding spirit of the Baroque is seeping its darkness into the Arcadian landscapes of Giorgione. Two shepherds are seen gazing at a skull placed on a cippus. A little mouse is seen next to a skull and under it we see the words which also give the painting its enigmatic title “Et in arcadia ego” which means “Even in paradise I am”. The skull is a harrowing, spooky sight and its presence in the calm greenery of nature disturbs the peacefulness. The face expressions of the shepherds reveal their feelings; their easy going attitude was tainted by the sight of the skull which brings thoughts of transience and decay which is inevitable for all that is alive; a flower withers and so will the man. Even visually the composition is divided between the shepherds on one side and the skull on the other and between them is a thin line which they don’t want to cross, as if coming nearer to the skull will somehow taint their carefree existence.

In Gauguin’s painting a lush female nude and warm, vibrant pinks and purples serve as a cheerful facade for the dreary existential motif that lies underneath. The girl’s youthful, sensual body is contrasted with Tupau, the spirit of the dead, which is lurking from the background dressed in a black cloak. The girl can feel its presence and she feels uneasy. The young girl in the painting is Tehura, Gauguin’s thirteen year old Tahitian wife, and according to his letters one evening he came home and found her “immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear (…) Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and specters, one of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?” Some art critics have interpreted her fear as the fear of Gauguin’s voracious, aggressive sexuality, but I will not go into that theory right now. Instead, I will focus on the spirit of the dead as a foreboding, eerie element in the vibrant, cheerful, hot, tropical world which is almost like a heaven on earth in some ways. The presence of Tupao is the infiltration of death and transience in this tropical paradise of vibrant colours, juicy fruit and eternal summer, it is as if his presence calmly says “Et in arcadia ego” and sooner or later, you will all die.

Also, as you can see from the title as well, this is my 700th post!

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri also known as Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22

Vincent van Gogh – Orchard in Provence

11 Apr

“Trees should be allowed to grimace.”

(Vincent van Gogh)

Vincent van Gogh, Orchard in Provence, 1888, pencil, pen and reed pen and ink, watercolour, on paper, 39.5 cm x 53.6 cm

This seemingly simple, spontaneous and even impulsive little pen and ink sketch by Vincent van Gogh is actually a very important and very beautiful portrait of trees which are all part of the orchard in Provence and yet they are also individual creatures with their uniquelly twisting, contorting branches and leaves. Vincent van Gogh always painted directly from nature and he was a very passionate and observant individual, but this way of seeing and portraying the trees came from the artists of the Far East. Their philosophy, when it came to portraying a tree, was that it was not enough to paint a tree as it was before your eyes, but to capture its essence, its uniqueness, its spirit. The tree had to resemble a real tree, but the artist had to transform the physical appearance of a tree into a poetic portrait of a tree which would speak to the viewer of its character. European tradition of copying from nature and achieving perfection was the complete opposite to the philosophy behind the art of the Far East. The Chinese painter and poet Su Tung-po who lived in the 11th century wrote “Above all, trees, bamboo, and so on, possess a constant, characteristic form, and furthermore express a principle, which it is possible to offend gravely against; if the artist falls short of it, the transgression is far worse than if he fails to render the external form adequately.” I think we can all agree that this is true, how often have you seen something that is painted correctly, without a flaw, and yet is has no soul? Vincent’s sketch is soulful and rich in expression and you can tell he drew it with ease and confidence, there is no hesitation there; his twigs and swirling tree tops look almost like some beautiful, strange calligraphy. Also, it is important to note that the patches of white watercolour that you see stand out against the tan colour of the paper but that is because the paper changed colour over the years.

Santoka Taneda – The Sound of Waves…

14 Mar

I stumbled upon this poem by Santoka Taneda and it struck a chord with me because it is profound and touches on the topic of transience. The poet compares the constancy of the waves, caressing the sandy shore then withdrawing again, in an everlasting rhythm, with the fleeting nature of our human life and the lyrical subject wonders: how much of his life remains? Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), an eccentric drunkard turned Zen priest, wrote many meditative poems and remains famous for writing in a free verse haiku style. Regardless of Taneda’s innovative haiku style “far more important are the special Zen qualities of simplicity (wabi), solitude (sabi), and impermanence (mujo) conveyed in a modern setting by his haiku.” (Mountain Tasting, Poetry of Santoka Taneda, translated by John Stevens) I think these elements make the poem so deep and I look forward to reading more of his poetry.

Paul Gauguin, La Vague, 1888

“The sound of waves
Now distant, now close;
How much of my life remains?”

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. (…) I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.

Henri Rivière – Funeral Under Umbrellas

6 Mar

“Rain down alienation
Leave this country
Leave this country….”

(Manic Street Preachers, Love’s Sweet Exile)

Henri Rivière, Funeral Under Umbrellas, 1895, etching

Rain has many faces. It is different in every season and in every place; spring rain is exhilarating, summer rain can be exciting and when you get drenched to the bone in July there is nothing that makes you feel more alive, whilst rain in November makes you wanna be – not alive anymore because it’s so depressing. Spring rain in the countryside can be so dreamy, when afterwards the grass is wet and the blossoms of the apple trees are dotted with rain drops and the air smells divine. Rain in the city can be depressing on a grey February day, but it can be also be magical in April when the pavements at night glisten in the light of streetlamps and streets are empty. Rain is two-faced and tricky because it can convey so many different moods and is equally hard to capture it in art, for how do you capture something quick and fleeting? A rain drop falls on the ground before you know it and how do you capture its fall. Other motifs can indicate its presence in the painting, such as umbrellas, puddles and ripples one the surface of a puddle, river or a lake, but rain itself is tricky to paint and throughout art history it wasn’t such a common motif.

At last, in the second half of the nineteenth century, led by the Impressionists’ desire to capture the nature and the fleeting moment, rainy days have found their place in paintings. Renoir’s painting “The Umbrellas” is the first that comes to mind when I think of rainy days in art and it is my favourite by Renoir, I just love the bustle of the street and all the blue umbrellas, and also it reminds me of the video for the song Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers shot in rainy streets of Tokyo with many colourful umbrellas. Another stunning example of rainy day in art is Henri Rivière’s etching “Funeral Under Umbrellas”, c 1895, which was heavily influenced by Japanese art and when I first saw it, for a second I thought it was indeed a Japanese print. It is simple but atmospheric.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Umbrellas, 1883

There are three key artistic elements borrowed from Japanese prints that Rivière used in this painting; firstly the obvious flatness of the surface, secondly, the use of diagonal composition which makes the painting seem dynamic and it beautifully takes our eyes on a trip from the first dark silhouette with an umbrella all the way to the carriage in the background, there’s also a dynamic play of empty space on the left with the space full of figures on the right half of the painting, thirdly the way rain is painted in diagonal lines falling from right to the left part of the painting, that is exactly how rain is depicted in so many Ukiyo-e prints and it is really stunning. I like the philosophy behind such portrayal of rain; real world is one thing and art is another world for itself and so why portray something exactly like it is in nature if you can come up with a new pictorial language for the world of art.

Rain looks one way in real life, but in Ukiyo-e prints rain is a bunch of diagonal lines and it works wonderfully. You can see that in Utagawa Hiroshige’s print “Mimasaka Province: Yamabushi Valley”; the lines representing rain are even thicker and stronger than Riviere dared to make them. In Ando Hiroshige’s print you can see the diagonal composition similar to the one in Riviere’s etching. Also, the fact that Riviere didn’t paint this oil on canvas but made an etching also shows an interested in Japanese art because the effect is similar whereas oil on canvas is something Japanese artists wouldn’t use.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Mimasaka Province: Yamabushi Valley (Mimasaka, Yamabushidani), from the series Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces [of Japan], 1853

Ando Hiroshige, Ama-no Hashidate in the province of Tango, 1853-56

Pierre Bonnard – Street Scene

16 Feb

Pierre Bonnard, Street Scene, 1899, four panel screen, colour litograph

Pierre Bonnard was fascinated by the liveliness and vibrancy of Parisian streets and parks where nannies, dogs and children play in sunny spring days and he painted many such vibrant street scenes, but this “Street Scene” (also known as “Nannies Promenade, Frieze of Carriages”) is a special street scene because the common Impressionist and Post-Impressionist motif of a street scene is inspired by the Japanese art and it also exhibits the philosophy of the Nabis group that art should be present in everyday life, in everyday objects such as tapestries, fans, posters and decorative folding screens. A century and a half before Bonnard, the art of Rococo had already shown a fondness for folding screens which were painted in the spirit of chinoserie, but the artists who painted the screens were always anonymous and unimportant, but in the late nineteenth century the artists of Post-Impressionism and Nabis found a tremendous source of inspiration in Japanese art and works such as this street scene by Bonnard are a delightful mix of Post-Impressionist European art and the influence of Japan.

Bonnard, a young artist at the time, first painted the screen in distemper (pigment in glue) on canvas with carved wood frame in 1895. In 1894 in a letter to his mother he spoke about the idea for the painting: “I am working on a screen […]. It is of the Place de la Concorde with a young mother walking with her children, with nannies and dogs, and on top, as a border, a carriage rank, and all on a light beige background which is very like the Place de la Concorde when it’s dusty and looks like a miniature Sahara.” And in 1895-96 around a hundred and ten colour lithographs were made and the one you see here is one of them. Half of those lithographs were destroyed in a flood in Paris in 1940. They were sold either individually or in a set and could either be mounted on the screen and served as a decoration in the room, or they could have been framed and placed on the wall as a panting. It is beautiful to see it flat like a painting and also beautifully folded in zig zag way, each vertically enlongated screen is an artwork for itself and yet it created a scene for itself. This narrow vertical canvas is called “kakemono” in Japanese art, and the action in the painting is suppose to be read in Japanese way, from right to left.

Bonnard showed a great interest in the folding screens and the first one he created was “Women in the Garden” in 1891 but in that folding screen every part of the canvas was filled with pattern and colour. In contrast, “Street Scene” is beautifully empty and there is an intricate visual play between groups of figures and the empty space. The figures are flat and simple. The placement of figures seems spontaneous but is actually carefully planned and it looks beautiful when the screen is opened or flat. The group of figures in the foreground are a fashionably dressed mother with her two children who are playing with sticks and hoops, a game seen often in the art of the Impressionists. A little black dog is here too. In the background three almost identically dressed nannies, and a row of carriages with horses behind them.

 

Bonnard: Rooftops and Nostalgia for the Life of Others

8 Nov

“Nostalgia for the life of others. This is because, seen from the outside, another’s life forms a unit. Whereas ours, seen from the inside, seems broken up. We are still chasing after an illusion of unity.”

(Camus, Notebook IV (August/September, 1942)

Pierre Bonnard, Rooftops, 1897

The voyeur in me delights in these two paintings by a French Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard. Gazing at the building, or a house, on the other side of the road, counting all the windows and balconies, wondering what secrets do the fancy facade and flimsy curtains hide, is there anything that awakens more curiosity and longing both at once? Painting “Rooftops” isn’t that exciting on its own; it just shows a roof of some Parisian building, roof windows and a little bit of blue sky. The scene would be much more exciting if it showed a woman undressing at the window, a couple kissing, or a murder taking place, but with the aid of our imagination we can fantasise about anything taking place in one of those flats. When I see a painting like this, I couldn’t care less about the architecture! My mind instantly starts fantasising about the people living there. Who are they and are their lives more exciting than mine? What secrets do the windows of their flats hide? What are they thinking about when they gaze at the other side of street? Gazing at other people’s windows, at the houses on the other side of the street reminds me of something that a character played by Daniel Auteuil tells a sad young girl Adele, played by Vanessa Paradis, in the film “La fille sur le pont”: “I’m going to tell you a story. Long ago, I lived on the even side of the street, at number 22. I gazed at the houses across the street thinking that people were happier, their rooms sunnier, their parties more fun. But in fact their rooms were darker and smaller. And they too gazed across the street. Because we always think that luck is what we don’t have.” Naturally, I have no curiosity or envy for the lives of people I know well because I know that their lives are as banal and boring as mine, but the mysterious faces whose names I know not, oh they are the ones about whom I can weave fantasies and project all my yearning and envy on.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain), 1897

Another Bonnard’s painting “Montmartre in the Rain”, painted in the same year as the “Rooftops”, also shows the buildings on the other side of the street with their glowing yellow windows. Each window holds a secret and even though the windows with the lights on are captivating and vibrant, the windows left in the darkness are even more mysterious; who is there in the darkness, a sad poet sitting on his bed, or secret lovers whispering secret words into each other’s ear? Bonnard must have been on a very high floor, third or fourth perhaps, to capture the scene in that perspective. I love the way Bonnard captured the magical atmosphere of glowing yellow lights and the wet pavements after rain. The strollers in the street bellow look like black blots. In “Rooftops” and “Montmartre at Night” Bonnard painted a view on the buildings on the other side of the street, but what about the inside of the flat and the people who live in it? Another Bonnard’s painting “Woman at the Window (Among the Seamstresses)”, painted in 1895, and a lovely pastel by Pissarro “At the Window, rue des Trois Frères”, painted in 1878, offer a view on what goes inside the flats, what secrets are hidden behind the curtains and windows. I bet the little girl in Pissarro’s painting would rather be exploring the parks and streets outside her house than be sitting there above the book, I bet she is eager to feel the sun and wind on her face and to taste life and not just read about it. And those drab, gloomy probably underpaid seamstresses in Bonnard’s paintings, I bet they would rather be strolling around free, roaming the streets and not sewing the dresses for evening parties that they will never attend, touching the silk fabric that they will never get to wear. They must be gazing longingly at those free passers by and wondering where they are going? And thus the circle continues, there is always the illusion, as the title of Milan Kundera’s novel says, that life is elsewhere….

Camille Pissarro, At the Window, rue des Trois Frères, 1878, Pastel on cream wove pastel paper

Pierre Bonnard, Woman at the Window (Among the Seamstresses), c. 1895

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