At the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional circus was one of the most loved forms of family entertainment. Since then, the fascination with clowns, acrobats and lion tamers has paraded its way out of the mainstream, only to be replaced by movies, television and video games. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is hoping to bring a bit of the classic circus magic back into family entertainment with the exhibition, Georges Rouault: Cirque de l’Etoile Filante (Circus of the Shooting Star).
Our collective Western subconscious somehow dictates that we experience fine art museums the same way we experience church; walk in, calm ourselves, slowly and pensively walk around, and then leave. It is quiet and meditative. The circus, in contrast, is a loud experience, filled with excitement and fun. The UMFA seems to understand this dichotomy and resolves this by showcasing the exhibit in the Emma Eccles Jones Education Center. It is a larger, open space designed for interactivity. When walking into the room, a viewer notices three things: the large red wall hung with monochromatic prints; color images hanging on facing walls flanking the red one; and a love seat, chair, and coffee table strategically placed in front of a puppet theater near the middle of the room. Behind the little theater is a table where kids can color their own Rouault circus performer puppets. The museum also provides an interactive guide for kids if coloring and puppetry is not on their minds. Jenny Woods, UMFA museum services liaison, organized the exhibition stating she wanted the experience to be a great opportunity for families to engage in artwork by an important artist, but more important to have a good time.
To begin a discussion about this body of work, we must first describe Rouault’s style. Usually classified as a Fauvist, Rouault utilized quick brushstrokes and thick impasto, similar to post-impressionist artists. His subjects, however, are heavily outlined, reminiscent to leading in a stained-glass window—to put it in a contemporary context, the black lines in a graphic novel. This technique is understandably present because, as a teenager, he apprenticed at a stained-glass studio. Another influential style drawn from stained-glass art is the breaking-up of the human form into visual planes. It is easier to assemble a window if the leading can bend and mold around the geometric glass representation of arms, legs, heads and torsos. This simplistic, stylized interpretation of the body is exactly how Rouault paints his subjects. Instead of colored glass, he uses thick, expressive lines to outline shapes of rich, dark-hued colors. The impasto is one of the few things breaking up the interiors of the color fields, allowing light to bounce off the texture, altering value. His unique style does distinguish him from other Fauvist and post-impressionist artists. He once stated: “If today there were beautiful stained-glass windows like those of the Middle Ages, I would perhaps not have become a painter.” Thankfully for us, he did become a painter and print maker.
One of Rouault’s passions in life was the circus and the images for this exhibition are from his book, Cirque de l’Etoile Filante(Circus of the Shooting Star), an homage to circus performers. He started work on it in 1926, publishing it 12 years later. The museum is exhibiting all 17 color intaglio aquatints plates from the book and a selection of 18 monochromatic woodcut prints. This specific collection is owned by Syracuse University Art Galleries. There were only 280 original editions printed of the portfolio containing the 17 color plates and 82 wood engravings. The text was also written by Rouault.
Similar to Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge dancers and Manet’s ballerinas, Rouault wanted to portray the reality of circus performers. He respected and admired these people. This series shows the moments when the performers patiently wait for the lights to turn on or minutes after they leave the ring. They reveal what happens behind a circus proscenium. They are the calm, real moments when the performers can address their real lives. Even though he depicts brightly colored acrobats, horseback riders, jugglers, dancers and clowns, the images invoke a sense of melancholy. Rouault spent time with these people, interviewing them, and writing down their stories. The portraits are honest representations of these people we view as familiar characters, but Rouault was able to reveal more than their archetypes. None of the figures have a gaze that confronts the viewer; they mostly look down or to the side. One of the strongest images is, “Dors, mon amour,” a colorful portrait showing a performer, heavily made up and in costume, checking on her baby sleeping in a bassinet. You can see the weight of being a working mother in her expression. The portraits of “Madame Louison” and “Madame Carmencita,” both in profiles, convey emotional distance toward a viewer. Madame Louison is dressed in a tutu and scowl, while Madame Carmencita has makeup running down her cheek. You won’t find any of the clowns smiling.
For this portfolio, Rouault did not veer from his painterly style; all the figures still have his signature thick outlines. The color plates were created using an aquatint print process that allows for subtle variations in color tonality through visual texture; however, Rouault didn’t seem to maximize on this. His geometric forms have some textural qualities, but the prints look flat, almost drawn onto the page like a lithograph. The color palette for these prints is brighter than his paintings, if only to remind the viewer these are portraits of circus performers.
More impressive than the color prints are the woodcut frontispieces. Rouault meticulously carved fine lines to create tonal shifts in what would otherwise be a flat image. The prints still contain that heavy, outlined, stained-glass quality, but have an intricacy that forces the viewer to look again. The images look painted, not printed onto the paper. This focus on detail helps explain why the book took 12 years to complete. One of the more unique prints from the woodcuts is the double page image index. It is a letterpress page with simple woodcut representations of the color plates–he created monochromatic thumbnail icons well before our computer-generated obsession with them.
To further the dialogue about this work and generate an even more participatory relationship to the exhibit, the UMFA is holding several free events (see below) including a screening of the PBS documentary Circus, which follows the Big Apple Circus, showcasing its performers and workers. It is a great contemporary examination on the same theme Rouault was exploring in his book.
In the UMFA’s permanent collection is a painting by Rouault, “Jean d’Arc” (date unknown). If you have the time, walk up to the second floor and compare his painterly style to his prints.
Even though the exhibit does depict an honest exploration of circus performers, the UMFA has done a good job downplaying the melancholy. The work is displayed and organized in a way that can be appreciated by both adults and children. The show honors the significance of the artist and this body of work, but it also transforms the museum experience from being something church-like to the exhilaration of seeing a circus. If you are lucky, while there, you might be treated to a wonderful Rouault- inspired puppet show, but this time the characters will probably be giggling.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.