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Pablo Picasso’s Two Acrobats with a Dog, 1905 and Nadar’s Pierrot Surprised, 1854

Pablo Picasso’s Two Acrobats with a Dog, 1905 and Nadar’s Pierrot Surprised, 1854, provide an interesting comparison when examining notions of expressive content as a function of specific media. Although the two works were executed in different media, Two Acrobats with a Dog is a gouache drawing on paperboard and Pierrot Surprised is an albumen silver print, they have many aspects in common, including subject matter, expressive content, and impact on the viewer. It is evident that although these works were conceived half of a century apart, they share specific characteristics that convey a very particular meaning. These works generate an almost indistinguishable visual impact, despite obvious technical and formal differences. Because of the eerily similar evocative nature and almost identical subject matter of these works, that being the entertainer/ the clown, we can situate them within the specific thematic umbrella of the sad clown and his perpetual alienation.  

It is necessary to discuss how certain formal and material qualities of the works are employed and emphasized to express this notion of the clown as outsider. The works convey how a clown functions within a preventative lifestyle, in which, one is paid to entertain, hides true existence, and is confined to the margins of society. In terms of similar formal elements, Picasso and Nadar have, essentially, pitted the figures against a relatively flat backdrop, forcing the figures to pop, despite a muted palette or limited tonal range. Two Acrobats with a Dog and Pierrot Surprised centrally place the subjects within a vertical, rectangular framework, in which the figures stand close to the picture plane, as the backdrop recedes, creating a distinct foreground and background. In Pierrot Surprised, Pierrot is unequivocally standing in front of a curtain, which alludes to the stage and the theater, further emphasizing the notion of the clown as confined to the world of make believe. Acting accordingly, Pierrot’s facial expression is one commonly associated with that of a mime, a type of entertainer, imprisoned to the movements of his own body. This confinement is echoed in the symmetry of the image and the way in which Pierrot stands static, with his hands hidden in his pockets. It is as though, his only mode of expression is his face, which due to the nature of photography, has now been fixed in time; Pierrot is forever trapped in this typified clown-like moment, perpetually stuck in a state of inner turmoil. Due to the harsh, stark tonal range of the photograph, the solitude and alienation of the clown is further emphasized, as the spotlighted Pierrot is made into a spectacle. The photograph, which has a sheen-like surface and eggplant and golden brown undertones, contains minimal detail especially in the very light clothing and face of Pierrot. Nadar has eliminated and stripped the performer’s identity, alluding to the way in which Pierrot’s lifestyle has prevented him from becoming a part of society; he has been marginalized and categorized as a social outcast, his only function is to entertain and now, captured as such, Pierrot will eternally entertain.

Nadar’s photograph, although relatively small in size (standard in size for 1854), is a work with enormous depth. At first encounter, the image is playful and jubilant, inviting the viewer’s interaction, however, quickly turns bleak and desolating, repulsing the viewer in its muted agony. Like, Pierrot Surprised, Two Acrobats with a Dog initially attracts the viewer in its circus-like imagery and color palette. The drawing is of large scale for a work on paper, which is pleasing upon first encounter. The immediate impact of lightheartedness is speedily replaced by a disturbing stasis, characterized by an unfortunate complacency, in which the performer accepts his role as social pariah. Acrobats with a Dog depicts two youthful acrobats situated in front of a vague, barren landscape. The isolation evoked by the work is intensified by the way in which the acrobats gaze off in different directions. Although the figures are physically close, there is no indication of interaction with the exception of the child’s hand that rests upon the dog’s head, possibly the gently laid hand is gesture of said acceptance. This work, comprised of an empty landscape coupled with the apparent disconnect between figures, is not only a thematic, but also a physical manifestation of alienation.

Unlike Pierrot Surprised, which captures a candid moment emblematic of the clown, Acrobats with a Dog, not only visually depicts the mental state of the entertainer, but also functions as a personal reflection. In that, Picasso’s aims and formal means are easily visible and accessible, as the method of drawing gives a clear indication of the artist’s vision. In analyzing the work, the viewer feels as though he has made a close contact with Picasso himself, as if present at the moment of artistic inception. Moreover, the simplicity of means and directness that comes with the utilization of drawing as medium, produces a work conscious of its inherent qualities and accepts its inability to produce imitative texture and spatial illusion. In that, Two Acrobats with a Dog revels in its simplicity of line, form, and lack of spatial illusion, however, is complicated by the use of gouache. This medium requires using a brush to produce lines, which can range from fine to fat. Two Acrobats with a Dog demonstrates the advantages of brush drawing, as Picasso used the brush to work both very fine delineations and fatter, broad areas or free-flowing line. Forming a connection with the artist himself through the medium of drawing with gouache, this work demonstrates how the absorbent paper has recorded every movement Picasso’s hand and every hesitation of his brush.

In discussion of drawing as a medium, it is important to note that unlike Pierrot Surprised, which due to its nature as a photograph has produced an absolute three-dimensional image, Two Acrobats with a Dog presents some difficulties in determining its three dimensionality. The drawing contains a definitive background and foreground, established by the visible line that delineates the figures from the foggily depicted landscape. However, the painterly application of gouache, which softens the disparate foreground and background, creates a state of odd flux between subject and backdrop. This flux is further illustrated when noting the minimal palette implemented by the artist; the work contains blues, pinks, and browns, which have all been dirtied, creating a uniformly gray undertone that envelops the entirety of the board. The methodical use of line, emphasizing the figures and the painterly approach, deemphasizing the landscape, are forged together generating an inorganic flatness of form. Notions of flatness that present visible tension and struggle, is both a physical aspect of the work, as well as one that contributes to its expressive content.

Pierrot Surprised and Two Acrobats with a Dog confront the notion of alienation by utilizing the thematic and symbolic clown figure. Although different in medium and execution, the works are similar in meaning and in impact. Contributing to this subjective and expressive clarity of the works is the good condition each work is in. In that, the viewer is not distracted by serious defacement of the surfaces and can experience Pierrot Surprised and Two Acrobats with a Dog as the artists intended. However, although both works are in good condition, they each have run into a few slight issues: handling, environmental, or inherent vice. In Two Acrobats with a Dog, the condition of the paper is seen through the surface layer of gouache. Raising, pilling, and crumbling of the paper is evident, as well as some scratching and ripping of the edges. Gouache, an opaque medium, is one that is less brilliant than watercolor for example. However, the work’s faded, foggy colors and chalky appearance is not a condition of the pigments or binding media implemented, it is a product of the artist’s style and conception. The work hangs encased in glass, most likely to protect the paper and drawing medium. Pierrot Surprised also hangs encased in glass and is matted. The minimal detail of Pierrot’s face and in his dress may be attributed to how the inherent vice of an albumen print and its environment contribute its loss of detail over time; however, the minimal detail is apt in discussion of the work’s expressive content.

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