(Róisín Kennedy, Masquerade and Spectacle, Irish Arts Review, vol.24, no.3, Autumn, 2007, p.62)
Jack B. Yeats had a life-long fascination with the circus, visiting and drawing circuses and travelling fairs in England and Ireland throughout his career. The composition of this painting is partly inspired by a drawing of Wilson’s Circus, Skerries, near Dublin, made by Yeats in one of his pocket sketchbooks in 1920. The final version of the painting differs quite substantially however from the drawing. In the sketch of the interior of a circus tent, the ring is largely empty, and the band is on the extreme right foreground of the composition with the main tent pole in the centre. Yeats notes the colours of ‘yellow and red’ at the top of the tent which came, he wrote, ‘from the sun shining through wet’.1 A trapeze type construction stands beside the main pole. Yeats’s interest appears to be in the physical construction of the tent and the impact of daylight on the interior
The painting, by contrast, depicts an elaborate evening performance in which a male acrobat stands on a horse’s back, while a female acrobat delicately balances on his leg, her body stretched high into the air.2 The arms of the two figures are extended into space as they maintain their balance and poise. The majestic horse canters round the ring, its large noble head bent forward as if in synergy with its human companions. The composition is devoted to the crowd of onlookers who sit in rows, transfixed by the gravity defying act in front of them. On a high stand to the right the circus band, in smart red and blue uniform, play. Burning gas flames emit light from the top of the central pole, sending warm orange tones across the large interior of the tent. Two young boys stand in the left foreground, between the viewer and the circus act. These repoussoir figures, a device familiar from many other paintings by Yeats, encourage our participation in the scene.
The skilled undertaking of the bare back rider was considered to be the most accomplished of the circus acts and the highpoint of the programme. Yeats used the Haute Ecole act, in which a female performer stands on a horse’s back, in several other notable works including the Haute Ecole Rider and This Grand Conversation was Under the Rose, (1943, National Gallery of Ireland). The Circus brings together the performers and the audience in a way that heightens the tension of the moment and evokes the sensory impact of the sounds, smells and sights of the performance. Like many other modernist artists, Yeats recognised the metaphorical power of the make-believe world of the circus to parallel that of the art work. Both artist and performer create alternative realms of imagination out of basic materials of paint and board and both are outsiders who live and work apart from conventional society. The inclusion of the audience in Yeats’s painting acknowledges his belief that the viewer is vital to the creative act and ultimately a key part of its purpose.
Dr. Róisín Kennedy
1Sketchbook NGI/1/JY/1/1/172, Yeats Archive, National Gallery of Ireland. My thanks to Andrew Moore of the NGI. (See also H. Pyle, op. cit., p.138).
2 A drawing of the performance by Yeats which is much closer to the painting’s composition is illustrated in H. Pyle, op. cit., p.138 (see fig.1). This may have been made after the painting, rather than as a preliminary drawing.
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