Strangers to happiness: the depiction of clowns in the work of Georges Rouault

Price, Jason (2017) Strangers to happiness: the depiction of clowns in the work of Georges Rouault. In: International Federation for Theatre Research Annual Conference, 10-14 July 2017, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 10-14 July 2017, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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In 1905, following a period of significant ill health, French painter Georges Rouault (1871-1958) observed a scene that would have a profound influence on his career: an elderly circus clown, sat alone on the back of a wagon on the side of the road, mending his costume for an upcoming performance. Rouault later recalled how struck he was by the image of the out-of-context clown, most notably the contrast between ‘brilliant and scintillating things made to amuse us, and this infinitely sad life […]’ (qtd. in Dyrness, 1971, p. 149). From this moment, clowns and other relics of the circus became a dominant feature of the artist’s work. While Rouault is certainly not unique in giving his attention to clowns in this period, there are two issues that make his treatment of the subject unique. The first includes the scale of his output. Between 1905 and 1956, Rouault produced around 170 individual works of art about the circus, more than any other subject in his collection. The second issue concerns the artist’s method: his deliberate distortion of his subject through the use of deep hues, messy lines and broad, inky strokes. As art historian William Dyrness points out, Rouault’s aim was to show that ‘under the happily painted apparition, dwells a stranger to happiness’ (ibid., 154).

This paper will take a closer look at Rouault’s paintings in the wider context of European avant-garde arts practices, where circus and clowning were commonly drawn upon for inspiration. I will concentrate on the (un)popular status of Rouault’s clowns; that is, the way he appropriates and then dismantles the iconic image of the clown, rendering it unfamiliar and alien to its native popular audience. My analysis will consider how his images perform this unmaking for viewers, as well as the multiple readings such a distinctive aesthetic can produce.

William A. Dyrness, 1971, Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation, Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Research Centres and Groups: Centre for Research in Creative and Performing Arts
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
N Fine Arts > ND Painting
N Fine Arts > ND Painting > ND0049 History
Depositing User: Jason Price
Date Deposited: 26 Nov 2018 12:52
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2021 10:45

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