In an effort to distance themselves from the past, avant-garde artists avoided references to anything that resembled old academic ideals. They sought inspiration in surprising places: icon painting, primitive art, the circus, music halls, and commedia dell’arte. Also known as the Italian Comedy, commedia dell’arte is a form of theater that originated in the streets and market places of the early Italian Renaissance, though its roots can be traced as far as back ancient Greek and Roman theater. It was characterized by masked types and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. Troupes of actors, each of whom had a specific function or role, traveled throughout Europe to present their shows, and the art form continued in popularity until the 18th century.
“Self-consciously artistic, picturesque, and typological,” the Italian Comedy was suitable for modern artists because of its folk conventions and lack of naturalism. “Commedia dell’arte offered much more for postwar artists than familiarity alone. As a genre both venerable and contemporary, it fulfilled the idea of modern classicism at the same time that it provided an alternative story line to the ancient myths that so powerfully gripped postwar European culture. A Latinate family of man, the commedia dell’arte represented normalcy in a period taken with the idea of common sense and anxious to cast off prewar emotionalism: ‘No Othello, no Hamlet, no Phèdre or Chimera, no one who agitates his mind with overpowering emotions,’ wrote scholar Pierre Louis Duchartre, ‘the commedia dell’arte is a complete world where each can find his nourishment.’”
After WWI, artist André Derain (1880–1954) was “celebrated and promoted by Parisian dealers and writers, and became a figure of admiration, for a new generation of painters and intellectuals. . . . [His] ability to synthesize traditional subjects and genres with his own milieu . . . contributed to the popularity of his works.” Derain’s prewar style displayed vibrant, unrealistic colors and expressive brushstrokes, but after the war, he sought out order and stability. In 1924, he painted the melancholyHarlequin and Pierrot (Arlequin et Pierrot), in which “their austere gaze adds to an atmosphere of melancholy and stillness.”
- Have the class describe this painting as carefully as possible. What colors, patterns, and textures do they notice?
- This painting contains two central figures. Who might they be? What can one learn about them by looking at their poses, expressions, and the way they are dressed?
- How would the class describe the mood of this painting? How has Derain created this feeling?
- Would your students like to attend a show featuring these performers? Why or why not?
- Before WWI, Derain was associated with Fauvism, a style of painting
known for its jarring, luminous colors and broad brushwork. His
approach to painting changed significantly following the war and a
1921 trip to Rome for the 400th anniversary of the death of the
Renaissance painter Raphael (1483–1520). In Rome, Derain pursued
16th-century artistic ideals, such as mastery of line, realism, and
structure, and decided that he was a realist at heart.
Compare Derain’s prewar paintings with those that followed the war. How are they different? How are they similar? Which does the class prefer? Why?
- In commedia dell’arte, the sad clown Pierrot loves Columbine, who
prefers Harlequin. Usually unmasked with a whitened face, Pierrot
“wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white
pantaloons.” Fundamentally naïve, this trusting soul is often played
for a fool.
Harlequin is known for his physical agility, often doing cartwheels or flips. A competitive lothario, he lusts for all women and often makes fun of other suitors. He is a “slow thinker” who “desperately tries to hide his lack of brains.”
Working with a partner, students can create a commedia dell’arte scene that animates Harlequin and Pierrot. In this theatrical form, actors worked without scripts, following only written scenarios that outlined the action. “Players made their performances accessible to all social classes by removing language as a barrier through employing skillful mime techniques, universally understandable characters, traditional gags and pranks, identifiable masks, and broad physical comedy.” Students should use as many of these techniques as they can.
English / Language Arts