‘Fools for Christ’s sake.’ 1 Cor. 4:10

by Canon Jim Foley

Whenever I visit Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow I make a bee-line for the room with the modern paintings and there I spend a few minutes in front of the portrait of a circus clown.   I’m indebted to the gallery for having introduced me to this clown and, through her, to the rest of her family, and perhaps even to myself.   I must confess, however, that over all the years that I have been visiting the Gallery, I have seldom seen anybody else give more than a passing glance or even a scowl in the direction of this picture.   In fact, I have often been conscious of the raised eyebrows of visitors to the gallery looking at me as I was looking at the clown.

But let me explain, if I can, what draws me to this particular painting and allow me to share with you some of the impressions I take away with me. The artist, Georges Rouault (1871-1958), began his artistic life apprenticed to a firm of stained-glass window designers.  To judge from this painting, and many others like it, he never abandoned this particular technique and turned it to advantage in his work as a painter. There is a rich and luminous quality to his colours, suggesting bright sunshine on the other side. The thick leaden outlines enhance this impression.  In front of one of his portraits I might be in a great Gothic cathedral looking at the head of a saint in a stained-glass window.

But what religion can there be in the portrait of a circus girl? What mystery of faith does this modern window reveal? The bright colours, the jaunty hat, the red rose behind her ear, the string of pearls, surely these are the ornaments of a happy carefree personality. But there is little happiness in her face. There is no smile to match the make-up, no sparkle in the eyes to reflect the sparkling jewellery. The eyes are sunken and downcast as if the sitter could not bring herself to look me straight in the face. This is a portrait of grief and humiliation, a grief that no amount of make-up can disguise.  Indeed the motley serves only to deepen the sense of tragedy.  Caught in a moment of repose, in an unguarded moment away from the applause, the deepest emotions of sadness and melancholy have surfaced and show themselves in this troubled face.

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012

This is the portrait of a woman who has no choice but to get on with the business of living.  She must entertain and amuse no matter what tragedy has come her way, no matter what sadness is remembered, what threat lies ahead. That’s the life of the clown.  The crowd must laugh no matter what the cost; nothing will bring a greater guffaw than when the clown trips and falls to the ground in a heap.

There was a time when the artist’s friends thought he had taken leave of his senses.  One clown followed another in quick succession; the old clown who looked back on a long life that seemed so futile now; he hadn’t the strength to go on much longer. The tragic clown who hated his audience who knew nothing of his personal troubles and cared even less; the angry clown who stands in the wings with an expression on his face that defies description;  the dwarf who must turn his condition to advantage no matter what the cost to his dignity as a man.

Nervous kings and predatory judges, ambitious lawyers and upstart politicians, these take their place in Rouault’s procession of clowns as if our artist saw through them all; they were as much part of the circus as the tumblers, the acrobats, the conjurors, and the man on the flying trapeze. Perhaps more so since they performed with peoples’ lives, they manipulated human values and juggled with the rights of man.

It comes as a surprise to find the figure of Christ in this parade and to discover that the wounded clown supported by two friends is simply Georges Rouault’s version of Christ crucified between two thieves.  He pencilled into one of his drawings the comment that: ‘This clown has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9.58).

It could be argued that Rouault’s art became truly religious only when he ceased to paint religious subjects.

I leave this unsettling corner of the Gallery wondering if I have been looking at the portrait of a circus clown or a portrait of suffering humanity caught up in a pleasure-ground that can never fully satisfy, that brings its own burden of remorse, of grief, of sadness.  Was I looking at the portrait of a clown or of the artist or of Christ?   At times I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that I am looking at myself.

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