In the words of David Bowie, “Life’s a Circus / It’s not fair / Life is a hard road/ When you’re not there / At the fair”. In all honesty, I don’t really know to what he’s referring, but life sometimes does get downright comical, confusing, freakish, and entertaining (all qualities of the circus). Sometimes life even smells like caramel corn, cotton candy, and peanuts. Life should never be taken too seriously, and clowns, whether satirically acting out a gag, taking a pie to a face, or pretending to be forlorn, remind us to laugh . A clown always plays the fool for us – how nice of them.
Antonio Donghi, Circus (Circo equestre), 1927, Oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm, Gerolamo and Roberta Etro, Milan. Some say that Donghi, although employed at the time by the Fascist government, drew this painting as a scathing caricature and a slight act of rebellion.
The Fratellini Family was a famous European circus family in the late 1900s and 1920s. Their famed performance in Paris, Montmartre, France, after World War I at Cirque Medrano was so successful that it sparked a strong resurgence of interest in the circus. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the post-impressionist French painter often frequented that very circus. The famous clowning family used their shows to attract Paris’s Intellectual Elite and leftist idealists. Their father, Gustavo Fratellini (1842–1905), was an Italian patriot rebel who took part in the unification of Italy.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “In the Circus Fernando The Ringmaster” (aka “Cirque Fernando: The Equestrienne”), oil, 1887-88 (Art Institute of Chicago)
Fratellini Brothers, both in and out of costume. Images from Wikipedia Commons and Here and Here.
Joan Miro, PEINTURE (PERSONNAGES: LES FRÈRES FRATELLINI), 1927The Fratellini Brothers, Oil on canvas, 130 x 97.5 cm, Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel
Kees Maks, Three clowns: the Fratellini brothers in the cirque Médrano, Paris, The Fratellini brothers (depicted in this lot from left to right Paul, François and Albert) were a famous clown act in Paris from 1902 to 1924 in the cirque Médrano. Maks depicted the popular trio on many occasions.
Believe it or not, my Uncle Don is actually a clown. He can make a quarter disappear behind your ear, a giraffe from a balloon, and a Queen of Hearts appear from a deck (guessed correctly). His stage name is “Stinky” and he performs with his brother who goes by “Finky”. They dress in a style of clown costume called The Tramp or The Hobo. Whereas most clowning inventions hail from France, The Tramp and Hobo clown type is truly a North America creation. James McIntyre and Tom Heath are credited with the creation of the tramp clown characterization in 1874. The history of clowning itself dates back to the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs wherein the role of clown (or jester) was also considered as high advisor and sometimes priest. To become a full fledged clown, academies exist that will train amateurs in the art of Auguste, White Face (grotesque, neat, European), Harlequin, Rodeo, and Tramp. When a clown performs, his act is referred to as his framework. It was not until my uncle joined the Shrine Circus that I realized circus clowns have a rich academic history. A clown has always played a major part in social histories as a respite from wars, depressions, and the hardships of daily life. Austrian- born, American sociologist, Peter Burger, writes in his book Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience that “It seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society”. The clown also plays an important part in the history of vaudeville, physical comedy, and acting techniques.
So how does the melancholy, mystery, humor, and colorful behavior of clowns translate into a room?
Read the rest of this entry