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In the Pavilion of the Red Clown (Robert Williams, 2001, oil on canvas)

In the Pavilion of the Red Clown (Robert Williams, 2001, oil on canvas)

Here is a contemporary picture by Robert Williams, the master of low-brow art.  In fact it is so very contemporary that you can still order high quality limited edition prints directly from the artist (who will hopefully forgive me for using his image–considering that I just linked to his online store).  The painting is obviously appropriate for Halloween week because of the masks, the pageantry, and the salacious costume worn by the circus girl (to say nothing of the uninhibited and rampant alcohol abuse on display), but what is the larger meaning?

At first the painting seems like a straightforward representation of an evil clown menacing a damsel in distress—the stock-in-trade cliché of horror films and pulp fiction everywhere. The inappropriate tongue-like nose on the clown’s mask, the rearing serpent, and the clown’s incarnadine garb all serve a rather straightforward Freudian narrative of male perversion and oppression.

Yet the clown grows more sympathetic on closer viewing. His leg is a prosthetic.  He is an alcoholic. It is questionable if he is menacing the showgirl or if she is a knowing part of the act.  The clown’s flamboyant red Pagliacci-style costume illustrates his intensity as a performance, and (as in Pagliacci ) the point of the painting is how thoroughly artists become subsumed into their art.  We the audience are represented by the (vaguely) surprised showgirl and Williams himself is the desperate artist who, like a desperate maimed clown, is trying to get a rise out of us with every old trick in the book. See how desperate and drunk he is! His life has become his art—and it is a bemusing spectacle. The poor clown doesn’t even have his caged bird but just an angry capricious serpent and a drinking problem.

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