Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Behind the Proscenium
Georges Rouault's Circus of the Shooting Star Comes to Town
At the beginning of the twentieth 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 brush strokes 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 plains. 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 performer patiently waits for the lights to turn on |1| or minutes after they leave the ring.|2| 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.|3| You can see the weight of being a working mother in her expression. The portraits of “Madame Louison” |4| and “Madame Carmencita,” both in profiles, convey emotional distance towards a viewer. Madame Louison is dressed in a tutu and scowl, while Madame Carmencita has make-up 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, stain-glassed 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.
Brian Usher and Teresa Kalnoskas . . . from page 1
At this point, the sculpture has achieved a compound, three-dimensional presence such as any abstract sculpture would present. For the cognoscenti, though (and any alert observer), that external form is just the beginning of a visual journey. The real adventure lies inside the glass. Anyone who’s ever gazed into a transparent object will have noted that things inside do not appear where they belong according to independent observation of its outside. Just so, looking through the clear surfaces of Usher’s glass arabesques, one sees a very different pattern of visible passageways within from that mandated by the actual exterior. Depending on the angle, it’s possible to see all the way through in some passages, while others end mysteriously. Here the blind passages are particularly effective, upsetting the viewer’s expectations even as they are being learned.
Moving around a sculpture is part of experiencing it. No less so in Anthony Caro than in Praxiteles, finding what’s on the other side, or how connections are made between parts, is part of the experience. Moving around a Brian Usher doesn’t just change whether it can be seen through or not. Changing the angle at which light enters or exits the sculpture’s interior changes the apparent depth and relative angles seen there. The eye and mind can play with this apparent anomaly endlessly. Millions of years of evolution went into honing the mind to see accurately, and no matter how many times the eyes venture into them, optical puzzles never lose their power to baffle and intrigue. Yet beyond this play of light, color, surfaces and space lie serious questions. We can assume that abstract marks, like the squiggled lines that began the ‘Lissil,’ can communicate impressions, ideas, and feelings in a way related to language and the ten thousand-year history of writing. But as Usher expands them into three-dimensional form, something unpredictable happens. They become animated, not just pictures of things, but characters whose stories are full of events. The impressions of the molds, transferred to the glass, speak of the difference between intentions and results. Scarred surfaces and remodeled details evoke an unknown, but richly implied history.
Silica is a kind of stone—heavy, unyielding—but glass is translucent, filled with light and, here, color. The shape of outside and the illusory space inside suggest something less obdurate, more ephemeral, like the way the melody in a piece of music suggests a sequence of thoughts. The history of how this shape was created conveys meaning words cannot: a feeling of cutting, pressing, bursting through, yielding. We can at least talk about these technical facts and what they suggest. Beyond that, the aesthetics of pure color taking form in space suggest a cerebral or emotional presence, like our own inner sense of being, sometimes contained in a scarred vessel, at others bounded only by itself.
The techniques of painting are far more familiar than those of glass, even to glass artists, and Teresa Kalnoskas takes advantage of this accessibility to subvert our expectations of how forms are created. Instead of depicting her subjects, she dramatizes them, making their coming into being something that happens not from their skins in, but from their accumulating, heavy centers out. They represent a coalescence of material that swirls about on her canvas like the primordial soup that, according to cosmologists, stars emerge from. In fact, the objects she finds in the pigment she excavates with her brush have no skins. Neither have they solid bodies. Indeed, they resemble storm clouds, swirling darkly around energetic cores, lit almost as much, and more intensely, by the lightning within as by their luminous surroundings.
Even the open space wherein she places them offers nothing like solid ground. We’re at the lower limit of perspective here, where the clues to how to organize this space give way to the reality that nothing is solid. There is more space between the marks that render what lies beneath these fruits, toy jacks, and ‘stills’—in which title she strips the Still Life to its essence—than paint in them. As for the impulsively-stroked lines that circle these curiously massive objects, sometimes spiraling or seeming to bounce about like highlights reflected from reverberating surfaces, they may be seen as energy overlaid on matter, not unlike the light that enables us to see them. Paint is material, and an intervening medium through which we try to contact whatever is real. Teresa Kalnoskas’ paintings don’t replicate the Neo-Platonic ‘ideal form’ of her subjects, nor their obdurate materiality. Instead, they reproduce for us the process by which we discover reality: finding a bit of the network here, another fragment there, and gradually building up from these hints a picture of something dependable amid the mystery. By the age when most of us learned to look critically at art, this process has become so much second nature that we may rarely notice it. Cognitive science has made great strides in elucidating how we perceive, and it’s good to understand. But it’s even better to move back and forth between understanding, or science, and direct experience. Better still is to have both present in one place, as they are at Julie Nester’s this month. Visual beauty and the physiological pleasure it produces can take thought beyond words, into a realm where understanding becomes joy.