Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Stevie Smith


What care I if good God be
If he be not good to me,
If he will not hear my cry
Nor heed my melancholy midnight sigh?
What care I if he created Lamb,
And golden Lion, and mud-delighting Clam,
And Tiger stepping out on padded toe,
And the fecund earth the Blindworms know?
He made the Sun, the Moon and every Star,
He made the infant Owl and the Baboon,
He made the ruby-orbed Pelican,
He made all silent inhumanity,
Nescient and quiescent to his will,
Unquickened by the questing conscious flame
That is my glory and my bitter bane.
What care I if Skies are blue,
If God created Gnat and Gnu,
What care I if good God be
If he be not good to me?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

'My Modern Romance' or 'The Tale of Harlequin and I'..

One of the very first things I learned when I was but a humble Saturday Sales Assistant at Benjamin Pollock's Toyshop, some four years ago now, was that the Commedia dell'arte is important, regardless of having any knowledge as to what 'it' actually pertains... - now, when I talk of importance the term is employed in a sense above and beyond any conventional associations made in the 'Retailer's Handbook of Get-a-Head Jargon,' generally read as 'that which pertains to the fiscal', for quite simply there seemed to exist a somewhat intrinsic link between the Toyshop's propagation of the 'toy-theatre-come-modern-era' narrative and the aesthetic provided by all that comes as a result of a type of comedy developed in Italy in the 16th and 17th Centuries... 

Harlequin can be portrayed as fits his portrayer and, as thus, there have been many illustrations, spanning now many centuries... below are examples of how the Harlequin image existed in the respective periods given and are the product of the efforts endured by the French writer and illustrator Maurice Sand (1823-1889) in compiling, what is most generally considered, his  Magnus Opum, dated 1890: Masques et bouffons (com├ędie italienne) - a monumental study of Commedia dell'arte... postcards of his illustrations are actually a major influence on my new passion since they are staple stock at the Toyshop!

Harlequin/Arlechino, in the year 1761 - Maurice Sand

At first I did not fall victim to the association, being quick to divert questions pertaining to the history and tradition of anything Commedia related, but VERY recently, and fours years on from my inception into the world of 'Pollockry', I have taken on a new appreciation for the imagery spurred by a dramatist movement born and nurtured in the dying breaths of the Renaissance... in particular, and admittedly one could argue rather cliche, the image of the Harlequin strikes me the most, with my very limited initial research indicating that I am not alone to find inspiration in what was the theatrical form's "conventional buffoon"; patented as the Harlequin...

Harlequin/Arlechino, in the year 1858 - Maurice Sand

So, finally, I have endeavoured to make the effort to understand what exactly was the Commedia dell'arte... however, my new fascination with the Harlequin has hindered said charge but I promise to place Him in his rightful historic context (it's the history graduate in me....) in a follow up post shortly which, coincidentally, ties in nicely with my reinvigoured interest in art history, starting with what has appealed to me the most: works from the High Renaissance moving to the advent of Mannerism.. what fun!

A Harlequin's History (mid-16th Century - modern day)

The Harlequin is known by other names, depending on language, such as Arlecchino (in Italian) and Arlequin (in both French and Spanish) and is heralded as the most popular of the 'zanni' (from the Italian dialectal nickname for Giovanni) or comic servant characters from the Commedia dell'arte, and it is to this type of theatrical practice we owe the roots from which a "conventional buffoon" could manifest, independently, within the hearts and minds of a generation. 

What is found to be most interesting, one poses, is how the somewhat simple, albeit humorous, associations wished to be drawn by his character, not even as an individual but at the very best as the principle   buffoon amongst a class of similarly situated characters, came to develop into a unique and distinct figure in his own right... which, possibly, tells us a lot about the bearing Commedia dell'arte had on popular culture, for the popularity required to undergo such an evolution as to span nations implies something fundamental with which the 'every-man', i.e. those who comprised the audiences of such theatrical practices, regardless of place, and indeed time, can relate... however, this is pure speculation but does add another dimension to why I find the Harlequin so fascination, for there seems to truly be something telling in the aesthetic pleasure many people receive from seeing any relative imagery.... oh, I do waffle and digress! 

Anyway, such associations saw Harlequin manifest himself as an individual and commonly identifiable character, which, in turn, spurred the Harlequin to the lime light, playing, rather interestingly, a considerable part in crafting the  narrative of theatrical practice, and performance as whole, in a 'Booming Britain', becoming the defining feature of a theatrical movement in its own right: the British harlequinade.

A coloured lithograph bookcover, 1890, depicting all 5 characters of the harlequinade...

Harlequinade is a type of theatrical performance piece, originally being a slapstick adapation of the Commedia dell'arte, with the story revolving around 5 core characters: Harlequin, Pierrot, Clown, Columbine and Pantaloon. The British harlequinade was developed in the 18th Century and involved slapstick scenes interwoven with scenes from a more serious play based on a myth or folklore. It was first performed in mime, with a musical accompaniment, but later developed speaking parts.Within the 19th Century the harlequinade evolved again being reduced to a comical chase scene focusing on the relationship between Harlequin and Columbine. The 19th Century also saw the advent of pantomime entertainment following a long drama, and the pantomime itself ended with a Harlequinade as part of the bill, as seen in such capers as 'Little Miss Muffet and Little Boy Blue, or Harlequin and Old Daddy Long-Legs'.

With such a rich tradition, as well as the unique ability to encapsulate the essence of those periods within which Harlequin was featured prominently, it should be of no surprise to learn that the Harlequin has successfully made the transition into contemporary creative outlets. This secures his position not only in our popular culture, but as being a historical artefact in its own right, from which one can draw personal, as well as contextual, associations.
Nothing exemplifies this more than looking at the fact that some of the world's most influential and recognised names, both past and present, have drawn from a personal, as well as contextual, representation of our Harlequin! Such names are Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Miuccia Prada, to name but a few of the visual examples I've uncovered! This is why I adore the Harlequin.. for he has now transgressed simple, aesthetic associations and has become a part of our modern psyche - if you realize it or not!

 'Paul as Harlequin' - Pablo Picasso

'Acrobat and Young Harlequin' - Pablo Picasso, 1905

 'Harlequin' - Paul Cezanne

'Harlequin's Carnival' - Joan Miro, 1924-25

The following segment depicts the Harlequin influence on the Miu Miu Spring/Summer 2008 collection - Miuccia Prada was certainly not kidding around when she said she wanted to capture a theatrical and dramatic look... it seems fair to say that the Harlequin influence on the arts is as strong today in Italian culture as when first developed some 500 years previously and whilst I'm not one to understand the nuances of contemporary fashion houses, I certainly do appreciate what these garments tell us about a popular culture that spans some of history's most radical transitional periods. Fashion as historical artefacts makes it all a-okay with me... just don't expect any sudden surge in appreciation-based posts!