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It's a Circus Out There
When we think of things "all-American" the phrase, "mom, baseball, and apple pie" comes to mind. Well, one out of three ain't bad. Moms and sweetened apples in pastry go back considerable before there ever was a United States of America. Other things come to mind too, popcorn, the hula-hoop, the circus perhaps? Okay, I'll allow the first two, but the circus is an import as well. The term actually dates back to Roman times and the popular images we have of the circus are almost 230 years old, going back to England in the 1770s when jugglers and trick horsemanship were the main attractions. When the show crossed the English Channel, the French added clowns, mimes, and acrobats, moving the whole thing indoors to giant rotundas designed specifically for such entertainment. The train-travelling extravaganzas with parades, huge tents and wild animal acts is largely an American adaptation demanded by the immense size of the country it sought to entertain.

One of the most outstanding French circuses was the Medrano Circus. Its home was a large, round, stadium-like theatre in the Paris neighbourhood of Montmartre. Montmartre had, for years, been the favoured venue for artists. And one artist who lived there, more than any other, was responsible for integrating the circus into art. He wasn't the first to discover circus performers as suitable painting subjects. Degas, for instance, had painted circus trapeze artists as early as 1879. But like us all, Pablo Picasso loved the circus...more than that, he loved the vagabond people who performed there. Around 1905-06, he seems entirely preoccupied with them in fact. This coincides with his Rose Period, and it would seem the circus may have been responsible for lifting him out of the melancholy funk of his Blue Period, not that there isn't a certain dismal quality to some of his circus subjects, but it seems to be that of a sweeter sort.

The Acrobat's Family with a Monkey, a mixed-media painting/drawing on cardboard, is typical of what I mean. It would almost seem to be a circus version of the holy family as seen by Picasso except for the almost comic simian squatting in the lower right-hand corner, gazing up at the loving couple with their squirming boy-child. Considered his masterpiece from this period, The Family of Saltimbanques, is a much deeper probing into the circus psyche. A group of five circus performers stand in a desolate, desert landscape, gazing wistfully upon an attractive young woman posed softly in the lower right corner of the painting. The harlequin and the jester in the group seem to symbolise the buffoon element in all artists with which Picasso so identified himself. The work was painted and repainted over the course of more than a year in which he rearranged the figural elements quite a number of times, perhaps trying to capture the perplexing perpetual motion so much a part of the circus he may, at times, have wanted to run off and join. Haven't we all?!

Contributed by Lane, Jim
11 December 1998

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