Run away to Paris with Rouault’s circus


Special To The Japan Times

Paris in its heyday — between one set of Germans marching in (1871) and another (1940) — is one of those fabled cities that exists forever in the human consciousness; one that is often prefixed with the word “gay,” in its earlier and truer sense. Any exhibition that manages to evoke this nostalgic world of cafes, cancan, and carousels is sure to enjoy a warm reception, and “Georges Rouault: Cirque Forain” at the Shiodome Museum in Tokyo’s Minato Ward definitely does that.

The Shiodome has a reputation for going that extra mile with their exhibitions to make them more interesting and enjoyable than they really need to. For the museum’s curators it’s not simply a case of providing space for the art, and making sure all the caption plates are correct, they also try to create an immersive experience.

This show focuses on Rouault’s clown-and-circus paintings, so along with the artist’s work it includes circus posters, tent-like stage scenery, and peepshows of performances from the four permanent circuses that entertained Parisians of Rouault’s era.

One of the most important Fauvist painters, along with Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, Rouault was also a major influence on the German Expressionists. However, his reputation saw ups-and-downs, both before and after his death in 1958. But in recent years, interest in the artist has been slowly gaining. Actually, the term fauve, which literally means “wild beast,” is much better applied to his rough, energetic work than to Matisse’s melodious compositions or Derain’s lush colors.

The most characteristic feature of Rouault’s style is the heavy black contouring of his figures. These contours surround the colors and, by the power of contrast, give them an added glow; although sometimes the overall effect can weigh a painting down.

This stylistic quirk has been linked to his apprenticeship as a glass-painter and restorer, working with leaded stained-glass. Applied to the human form, it gives his paintings an atmosphere of butchery, as the legs, necks, and torsos are demarcated and detached from one another.

The world of the clown that these paintings open a tent-flap upon is a suitable metaphor for Paris in those days. On the surface, a gay, brilliant, vivacious city of champagne and sophistication; underneath there was plenty of poverty, squalor and hardship. Just like the thick makeup of the clown, or the paint of Rouault, hiding the sadness beneath. Rouault’s clowns are never jolly. Instead, a tragicomic sadness or stoicism seems to ooze out from the thick black lines that define them.

The exhibition, however, is a cheerful one, putting us in the position of carefree tourists enjoying the delights of the circus, regardless of the shadows in the sawdust.

“Georges Rouault: Cirque Forain” at the Shiodome Museum runs till Dec. 16; 10 a.m. — 6 p.m. ¥800. Closed Wed.