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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.


The Tree of Life (Mark Ryden, 2007, oil on canvas) framed original

Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden.  The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art.  A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago.  In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree.  Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids.  Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper.  Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate).  The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).


As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning.  Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2023