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This year’s Halloween theme (both in Ferrebeekeeper and our benighted democracy) is “Evil Clowns”.  Clowns date back to dynastic Egypt and they have always been liminal figures who have straddled lines between wisdom and foolishness, outcast and insider, living person and weird effigy, and even between good and evil.  Evil clowns really got up and running as a meme in the 19th century with stories like “Hop Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, yet there is a critical precursor which I overlooked.  Back when I was young and innocent, I started a toy company with a mysterious & dodgy business person I met.  For some reason, running an international business proved impossible, but I loved making toys and I also enjoyed looking back through the history of toys which combines cultural, technological, and art history (and which stretches to before Eridu rose from the mud).  Evil clowns turn out to have a very direct link with one of the most successful and powerful toy concepts of the last thousand years.

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In the early 16th century, a German clock-maker known as Claus built the first known example of what we would call a “Jack in the Box” for a local princeling.  Claus built a wooden box which popped open when the user turned the crank.  Except it wasn’t a clown that popped out, it was a devil!  The French name for this toy is “diable en boîte” (devil in a box) which hearkens back to the first generation jack-in-the-boxes which were all devils.   Some toy historians speculate that all of this was related to a 14th century English prelate named Sir John Schorne who was said to possess a boot with a devil inside it (for reasons which are obscure).

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Fairly on, jack-in-the-box toys diversified from being just devils, but a lot of these clowns maintained a sort of Krampus-like demonic aspect to them.  Here are some photos I stole at random from around the web and I think they illustrate how alarming Jack in the boxes are (although people with sensitive and anxious temperaments could already tell you that–this is after all a toy meant to startle you)

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Gah! Just look at these puppies…and they were made for children.  Jack-in-the-boxes are already bad enough, but imagine if one of these things popped out.  The depraved marketers for the movie “It” made a jack-in-the-box featuring Pennywise, the evil clown from that movie (see below) but frankly Pennywise looks like he would be mugged by any of these older anonymous jack-in-the-box clowns.  It is hard to say anything with certainty when we are talking about nebulous and ancient cultural concepts, but I wonder if the idea of clowns as terrifying bogey-men didn’t come as much from generations of jack-in-the-box scarred children as from literary lions like King and Poe.

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Is this thing…a garbage can?

Ok, these evil clowns are sort of getting to me (and we have a lot more territory to cover before Halloween) so let’s take a little breather with some clown mascots!  Now this brings us to a classic problem which lies at the heart of the uneasy love/fear/contempt relationship we have with clowns.  Clowns wear make-up, prosthetics and masks (assuming they aren’t just a picture of a crazy face–like some of these characters). These exaggerated new features blur or occlude the very subtle facial muscles which we primates are laser-focused on in order that we can tell if a grinning stranger is a new ally or a murderous lunatic.  If the orbicularis oris is occluded with paint–or cast in imperishable plastic!–is hard to tell if a clown is evil or wretched or…happy, I guess.

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Clarabell the Clown was Howdy Doody’s mute partner and the definitive TV clown of the generation before mine

All of this is a long way of introducing some old familiar clown mascots while asking that you examine them with a fresh eye.  When seen anew, some of these guys look a lot more disturbing then I recall–not to mention the fact that they are almost all trying to sell greasy sugary food, weird costumes, or dangerous carnival rides!  You can really see how people become afraid of clowns…or capitalism.  But don’t worry, this is a safe space and this big-shoed saunter down memory lane is all in good fun.

 

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Ronald McDonald was the face of McDonalds when I was growing up, and he can still be found around the 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants worlwide…but I feel like they have been moving him towards a more ceremonial role and shilling deep-fried fast food by other means

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Is Jack Box of Jack in the Box even technically a clown?

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Oh wow! It’s Osaka’s Famous Clown Mascot, Kuidaore Taro!

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Bozo was a figure from the first days of television–he was franchised but each station had their own version!

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Dammit, Mr. Softee, get out of here, you are clearly an ice-cream.

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The Grinning Face of Steeplechase is still an emblem of Coney Island

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GET. KRINKLES. AWAY. NOW.

 

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Emmett Kelly as famous depression-era clown, Weary Willie

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I just don’t know…

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The Trademark Jester of Mardi Gras!

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To say nothing of vintage pinball!

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The Vintage Fanta Jester

Well that was a refreshing break, I guess.  It does illustrate the point that clowns–even the most anodyne ones meant to sell pop and hamburgers–are pretty unknowable and stand right in the middle of the uncanny valley.  Yet they are inexpensive corporate spokespeople and they have a way of hanging on in our memories, if only for nostalgia’s sake.

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OMG! It’s Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal”! Did we ever unlock him? Robbie? Nick? Anybody?

 

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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We are in the second half of October and it’s high time to reveal Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween theme for 2019!  Past years have featured themes like Flowers of the Underworld, The Mother of Monsters, Flaying, Necropolises, and, my personal favorite, The Undead.  A cursory glance at the top-selling masks at the giant costume shop on Broadway has made me realize that this year can only have one choice.  For mysterious reasons which probably have half to do with contemporary American politics and half to do with winding up an accursed jack-in-the-box found at the annex of Hell (insomuch as those two things are different), this is the year of scary clowns.  Who is Ferrebeekeeper to stand in the way of this tiny car filled with quasi-infinite dark pranksters?

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In 2019 Joker, Harley Quinn, and Pennywise rule the box office,  Pagliacci rules the opera house, and “Clown Girl” rules the Barnes and Noble (ok, actually, maybe I am the only person who read Monica Drake’s perplexing 2007 down-and-out in Baloneytown novel, but it has certainly stayed with me).

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Clowns are hardly a modern or even a western phenomena.  They stretch through almost every culture and, as we shall see, they trace their roots to the beginning of civilization (and probably beyond).  Carl Jung, who has many strange and interesting things to say, sees teh trickster as one of the oldest and most fundamental archetypes which humans recreate again and again.  On one hand the trickster is a figure of buffoonish comic fun, and yet,  the trickster’s nature has always been dual.  Let’s hear a quote from Jung himself (from Four Archetypes: Mother Rebirth Spirit Trickster):

In picaresque tales, in carnivals and revels, in magic rites of healing, in man’s religious fears and exaltations, this phantom of the trickster haunts the mythology of all ages, sometimes in quite unmistakable form, sometimes in strangely modulated guise.n He is obviously a “psychologem,” an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearest manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level. That this is how the trickster figure originated can hardly be contested if we look at it from the causal and historical angle. In psychology as in biology we cannot afford to overlook or underestimate this question of origins, although the answer usually tells us nothing about the functional meaning. For this reason biology should never forget the question of purpose, for only by answering that can we get at the meaning of a phenomenon. Even in pathology, where we are concerned with lesions which have no meaning in themselves, the exclusively causal approach proves to be inadequate, since there are a number of pathological phenomena which only give up their meaning when we inquire into their purpose. And where we are concerned with the normal phenomena of life, this question of purpose takes undisputed precedence.

Wow! Brother Carl really did have some peculiar things to say.  What on Earth is he talking about?  Join me in the days leading up to Halloween and we will see if we can make sense of what he is talking about by looking at clowns in history and art, and running the trickster back to his/her ancient roots.

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Of course, trying to trap and analyze the ancient spirit of dark mischief doesn’t sound like a venture which is going to work, but at least there should be some spine-tingling surprises and some hair raising mishief (and maybe some funny pratfalls).  Anyway, it’s all in good seasonal fun.  What is the worst that could happen?

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Oh…

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