Image of an image

An etching made in 1927 by Georges Rouault representing a tragically miserable clown, is called: "Don't We All Wear Makeup?" The painting shown here, in oil on paper, from the Hammer Collection, is simply dubbed "Circus Girl," as are two or three other paintings by this Parisian artist about 1939. The mild and pallid face, with its rather over-used alertness is characterized by Rouault's strong black contour lines, like the leading in a stained glass window. But this black is also an analogy for the theatrical makeup of a circus performer, her heavy mascara and eyebrow pencil. The overlaid, lively quality of his paint parallels the application of her greasepaint.

There is more than a hint in the old-young skinnyness of the face, the slightly pinched mouth, that the word "girl" here refers to her professional image rather than to her years, which would be hard to gauge. Rouault presents her, as he did many of his pictures of people, like a snapshot, elaborately framed: an amalgamation of the casual and the richly concentrated. The frame is luxuriantly painted, decorated with a jewelled, opulent impasto, which also suggests theater. The jewels will be colorful paste: this is the artificial gaudiness of stage effect. You can imagine this picture taped on the wall of a circus caravan, or -- signed by the trapeze artistem herself -- pinned onto the surround of a dressing-room mirror.

"Circus Girl" is an image of an image, not a portrait that looks penetratingly below the surface to discover an individual's uniqueness. It is a kind of icon, predating certain preoccupations of the so-called "pop art" of the 1960s. There is no hint that the girl "sat" for this portrait. She seems too typical, too universal, for that. She isn't Lola or a Mary. She is all the nameless circus girls that ever were.

And she might almost as easily be a saint, the way Rouault portrays her, as a wandering entertainer. She is as gentle and wistful as any head-and-shoulders Rouault ever painted. He was certainly capable, particularly in his earlier work, of savagely ugly visual sarcasm, of fierce, exposing castigation, of pictures angered by despair. Here, though, is a sweet-sad aspect of his vision, a picture of a face neither ravaged by anguish nor elated with joy, but slightly anonymous, a face that is not particularly noticeable. In it Rouault celebrates the overlooked.

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