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Painting Reflects Theater – The Influence of Commedia Del ‘Arte

By Gary Beck , July 2006

     Commedia Del ‘arte was the first professional form of theater and the forerunner of circus. From the renaissance to the Impressionists, art first reflected the spiritual, than the human condition. Painters from Callot through Watteau and Fragonard, up to Daumier, used Commedia as a commentary on the social conditions of their times. Commedia often presented an alternative to the artist’s usual presentation of more formal subject matter. Beginning with Degas, there was a propensity by painters to stylize the Commedia actor as a clown figure. This obscured the range of skills, from ballet to drama, that Commedia once required of its actors as the first vehicle of professional performance. The neo-Impressionists, Fauves and Nabis, particularly Seurat, but including Signac, Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse and Vlaminck, introduced the symbolic pathos of the clown and fool, as the alter-ego of the artist. Cezanne stabilized the conception of the actor as a type, establishing the image as a valid subject.

     The movements that were truly responsive to the new technology of the 20th century; Cubism, Futurism, Dada, The Precisionists and Surrealism, presented the vitality of the actor, as well as the alienation of the artist from the life around him. Roualt, Picasso, Braque, Severini, Klee, Chagall, Calder and Miro, all explored the diverse relationships in the outcast mini-society of Le Cirque. The painters perceived Le Cirque as a lively, extroverted spectacle, surrounded by a hostile world, very much like the artist’s.

     The depiction of the color, humor, vulgarity, excitement, suffering and earthy vigor of Commedia brought identification, and admiration to many struggling artists. A revealing article by Theodore Riff, ‘Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns and Fools’, illustrated the perception of so many modern artists, particularly Picasso, that led to the creation of many paintings. The expression of Roualt’s torturous visions alternated between christ and the clown, indicating the conflict between the spirit and temptations of the flesh that tormented him.. Yet both spirit and flesh to the artist are frequently an anguish. Miro and Calder were among the few who expressed fun and joy in the subject of circus. Their use of childlike device returned the image of Commedia to one of its renaissance forms, vulgar comedy. Yet that is only a partial recognition of the historical influence of Commedia.

     The wandering Commedia Del ‘Arte troupes of the pre-Renaissance were generally the only entertainment, except for passion plays and jugglers, ever seen in the small towns of Italy, and later in France. The players presented the full range of performing arts, opera, ballet, classical drama and mannerist like comedy to the nobility, who paid a fee. Low comedy was primarily reserved for the lower classes. If the actors performed well for the peasants and merchants, and did not offend the audience with crude ad libs and insults at someone’s expense, they were rewarded. They literally had to sing for their supper. If they got too familiar they might be beaten. By the time of the High Renaissance, the Commedia troupes had become professional touring companies, sponsored by kings and wealthy nobles. It was a fact of life then, as it still is now, that performing arts companies require generous patrons.

     It is unclear how the myth began, that a Commedia actor played one character for his or her entire life. The cycle of aging from youth to elder manifestly demonstrates the fallacy of only playing one role. When actors were too old to be young lovers, swordfighters, acrobats, dancers, etc, they evolved to more mature roles; the jealous old man, the foolish doctor, the nurse, etc, as would as any skilled actor who develops his or her craft. Painters seem to have found the comedic element more appealing, perhaps as a diversion or assuagement from their own suffering. But the reality was that the actor was more than a ‘fool’, even though that’s the image most presented by the painter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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©2006 Penniless Press