“…even now, when I paint a crucifixion or any other religious subject, I feel again almost the same emotions that I experienced when painting circus people, and yet there is nothing literary about these pictures, and I find it very hard to explain why I find a psycho-plastic likeness between these two types of composition”
Marc Chagall (1)

In 1921, Cocteau wrote
“The music hall, the circus, and American negro-bands, all these things fertilise an artist just as life does… This life force which is expressed on the music-hall stage makes at first sight all our audacities appear old fashioned.” (2)

In the 1980s, jazz music and the circus seem worlds apart. However works such as ‘Parade’ and Matises’s ‘Jazz’ show that jazz music and circus themes were linked together in the minds of artists in the first half of the twentieth century. Analysis of this association should shed light upon the way in which jazz was viewed by artist which, in turn, should reveal something of its influence on the visual arts.

Picasso associated jazz and circus themes in his ‘Three Musicians’ of 1921 and also in his drawing of two clowns as minstrels, produced for the publication of Stravinsky’s ‘Rag-Time’ in 1918.

Pablo Picasso Cover design for Stravinsky's 'Ragtime' 1919

Fig 3.1 Pablo Picasso Cover design for Stravinsky’s ‘Ragtime’ 1919

In the same year, Stravinsky himself combined ragtime rhythms with circus imagery in ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’. The themes appeared together in ‘Le Boeuf sur le Toit’, a Cocteau/Milhaud collaboration. Milhaud completed the score in 1920 having originally envisaged it as an accompaniment to a Chaplin film. Although the score was based on popular Brazilian melodies, the show was set in an American speakeasy and the action was mimed by the Fratellini brothers, three clowns from the Cirque Medrano, while a jazz trio performed in the intermission. It seems that, in Paris at least, many circuses employed jazz bands to perform during intervals. This attraction drew Mondrian to the circus almost nightly in 1929. The popularity of American cinema clowns such as Chaplin also led to the association of American jazz with slapstick comedy, hitherto seen in a circus or sideshow.

In the 1920s and 1930s, jazz was a popular dance and listening music even while being
“…forged into a formidable expressionistic art by an authentic genius such as Louis Armstrong…” (3)

and for this reason alone would have been associated with other popular forms of urban entertainment. There was great interest in folk art in the early twentieth century which can be seen as an aspect of “primitivism”. John Willet has pointed out that in the Twenties, Russian and German artists particularly had a
“politically grounded concern for the popular audience.” (4)

Elsewhere, while high art experienced a period of doubt and questioning, it was peraps only natural that artists would gravitate towards popular art, still apparently robust in its instinctive approach and lack of self-analysis. The American, Stuart Davis, expressed this idea in a personal context:
“Coleman was a very good painter, very talented – had no problems with psychological obstacles… He felt the way he painted was right without knowing what the right way was, just as I know the Negro piano players we listen to together knew how to play the piano.” (5)

The ability to rely on one’s instincts requires great self-confidence as well as technical skill. Jazz music and the circus tradition are both forms in which the emphasis is laid squarely upon the the improvisational skills of the performer. Within jazz, as with Commedia dell’Arte, there are conventions, but the performer is ultimately in control. In 1933, Robert Goffin, the jazz critic, wrote
“…hot jazz has no patience with stimuli by proxy and requires more of its executants, insisting that each should have ample scope for independence and spontaneity of expression…” (6)

This message, “the artist is in control”, typified the “New Spirit” to which Apollinaire referred when he promised that ‘Parade’ would
“modify the arts and the conduct of life from top to bottom in a universal joyousness.” (7)

Interestingly, jazz music and elements within the circus were both originally expressions of creativity in the face of oppression. Jazz developed from the music of slaves and became a means of black protest in the U.S. Meanwhile, the modern circus embraced and confused the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte, travelling players and the court jester which had provided an antidote to the funeral order of pre-industrial Europe from the time of the middle ages. Christian festivities overlaid pagan ones and the veneer was often thin. Foolery focussed upon anarchic, upside-down images of the world which were less nonsense than concealed rebellion. For these reasons, jazz and the circus, still existing independently of the establishment were of interest to artists challenging accepted values.

Matisse attended the first performance of ‘Parade’ and his ‘Jazz’, executed some thirty years later, reflects many of its themes. Both are composed of ‘cacophonous vignettes’ and reflect an ‘exhilaration in the absurd’.

Henri Matisse 'The Circus' 'Jazz' 1947

Fig 3.2 Henri Matisse ‘The Circus’ ‘Jazz’ 1947

The text, which ‘illustrates’ the plates, elaborates upon the theme of liberation from the habitual and the expected and the title is presumably intended to sum up the spirit of this theme. Flam suggests that in ‘Jazz’
“Matisse does not propound a scientific theory of new art, but offers himself as an example to the young of what artists should do and be.” (9)

Henri Matisse 'The entourage of Pierot' 'Jazz' 1947

Fig 3.3 Henri Matisse ‘The entourage of Pierot’ ‘Jazz’ 1947

In the twentieth century many artists have proclaimed their artistic ideas verbally and directly in manifestos, and in doing so have risked undermining pure visual art. By identifying himself with jazz and the circus Matisse was able to indicate a code of creativity while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of logical verbal analysis.

Artists have not only identified with the forms of jazz and the circus tradition, but with jazz and circus performers themselves. Picasso’s ‘Three Musicians’ are jazz musicians and masked carnival characters at the same time.

Picasso 'Three Musicians' 1921 Both versions.

Fig 3.4 Picasso ‘Three Musicians’ 1921 Both versions.

Reff argues that the figures have a third set of identities: that of Picasso and his friends, Apollinaire and Jacob and it seems widely accepted that when Picasso painted Harlequin during his Blue and Rose periods, he painted an alter-ego. This would correspond with the romantic tradition of nineteenth century poets such as Baudelaire who also identified themselves with clowns and Harlequins. The question is ‘why’? And where do jazz musicians come in?

Like artists, circus and jazz performers lived on the fringes of society, but for different reasons. In the twentieth century, circus and jazz performers were generally from the poorest sections of society and were often uneducated and sometimes nomadic. They would therefore enjoy a dubious relationship with their audience who would feel superior to them even while enjoying and envying their talent. In this context, it is interesting to note that a stereotype often grafted onto black men corresponds remarkably with the archetypal character of Harlequin,
“a happy, gifted, ignorant and comic character’ (10)
who also has sinister potential.

This archetypal character is a facet of Dionysos, Nature’s son, consort and victim who represents amoral creativity and sometimes destruction, and has existed in Europe in various guises since pre-history. It seems that to some extent, in America, black people were given this dubious role to play out. Marshall Stearns notes with reference to stereotyping in American literature that in Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ the black man is seen as an idol with almost magical powers. The black novelist James Baldwin wrote of his reaction to being stereotyped:
“I knew very well what (white) Americans saw when they looked at me and this allowed me to play endless and sinister variations on the role which they had assigned to me; since I knew that it was, for them, of the utmost importance that they never be confronted with what, in their own personalities, made this role so necessary and gratifying to them. I knew that they could never call my hand or, indeed, afford to know what I was doing;” (11)

The identities of black jazz musicians became therefore entwined with this stereotype in the public imagination just as the identities of circus performers became one and the same with the archetypal characters they played. The result in both cases was the creation of superhuman, sub-human, shaman, showman ‘characters’ with whom artist came to identify.
Robert Graves goes some way to account for this in his foreward to ‘The White Goddess’:
“My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry – ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of ‘the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute.” (12)

If this is the case then poets, artists and creative musicians all share an affinity with Dionysos, the consort of Nature and symbol of male creativity, whose character in the early twentieth century was particularly represented in the public imagination by circus performers and jazz musicians (and cinema performers.) In the case of jazz musicians, the Bacchic association was strengthened by the rhythmic nature of jazz.

After describing myth as
“the foundation of life… the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces traits out of the unconscious,”
Thomas Mann observed that
“while in the life of the human race the mythical is an early and primitive stage, in the life of the individual it is a late and mature one.” (13)

This perhaps helps to explain Matisse’s renaissance in his old age which enabled him to create what has been called an “art of grace”.
“The cut-paper compositions were the work of a man very near death, but they were like signals from the Springtime of life.” (14)
Flam writes that in ‘Jazz’
“Experience has been replaced by memory, vision by imagination. The time of the clock has been replaced by narrative time, fictional time, mythical time.” (15)

In this chapter I have explored parallels between jazz music and the circus which help to reveal the attraction of jazz for twentieth century artists. It would seem that jazz served as a stimulus and focus which helped artists to express their aims because they attributed to it and its performers qualities some of which they wished to represent and some of which they wished to emulate themselves. Theodore Reff has described harlequins and clowns appearing in twentieth century modern art “like saints of a secular, artistic culture”. (16) Perhaps, in twentieth century life, jazz musicians, popular musicians and, to a lesser extent, visual artists have assumed that role.

1. Mathey, F Chagall, The Little Library of Art. London, 1960 p.8
2. Cocteau, J Cock and Harlequin. London, 1921 p.23
3. MacGregor, C Pop Goes the Culture. London, 1984 p. 87
4. Willet, J The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33, 1978 p.87
5. Johnson Sweeney, J Three American Modernist Painters, M.O.M.A. New York, 1965 p.7
6. Goffin, R Hot Jazz. tr. S. Beckett. Negro Anthology Nancy Cunard. London 1970 (1934)
7. Lee Goldberg, R Performance Art – From Futurism to the Present. London, 1979 p.77
8. Cowart, J et al Henri Matisse Paper Cut-Outs. New York, 1977 p.45
9. Cowart, J et al ibid p. 44
10. Stearns, M The Story of Jazz. New York, 1956 p. 312
11. Baldwin, J Notes of a Native Son. London, 1964 p. 45
12. Graves, R The White Goddess. London, 1961 p. 9
13. Williams, P The Fool and the Trickster. Cambridge, 1979 p. 84
14. Russel, J The World of Matisse. Amsterdam, 1969 p. 171
15. Cowart, J et al ibid p. 45
16. Reff, T ‘Picasso’s Three Musicians: Maskers, Artists and Friends’. Art in America. Vol 10, December 1980 p.128