Monday, 14 July 2008

Circus and vaudeville in the portraits of Walt Kuhn

From a young age Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) had three main interests which were to dominate his life - art, theatre and the circus. An intense and extremely dedicated man, Kuhn immersed himself in the New York art scene from 1903 onwards, having previously trained as a painter in Brooklyn then in the legendary Academy Colarossi in Paris. In 1905 he held his first exhibition and worked feverishly during this period as an illustrator and painter, work which would eventually culminate in him taking up a post at the New York School of Art in 1908. His first solo show, a resounding success, was held in 1909.

1913 saw Kuhn take part in the establishment of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, who later that year organised the seminal "Armory Show." It is his association with this incredibly important event which has allowed his name to endure, and today he is perhaps better known in connection with the organisation of this event than he is for his own creative work.

In 1925 after almost dying from complications relating to an ulcer he set himself a two year timescale in which to prove himself as an artist. Throwing himself into his work feverishly, he documented the clowns, performers and theatrical way of life that he adored. His odyssey would continue through the next two decades. Ruthlessly self critical, many of these works were later destroyed and even the canvasses that survive are often unsigned or unfinished. Bennard B. Perlman described them thus -

"Boldly outlined, brusquely modeled, intensely expressive, and frozen in limelight against dark backgrounds, Kuhn's portraits are unforgettable, disturbing paintings. Most present a frontal gaze that is at once hypnotic and that were considered startling in their day. Just as Rembrandt and van Gogh allow the viewer to pierce the facades of their sitters' faces to look deeper into their beings, so Kuhn accomplishes the same thing, but in an almost eerie fashion."

There is certainly an air of unease about some of his paintings but I wouldn't describe them as disturbing. The guy who painted the sad clowns against the dark backrounds - of course they should be disturbing, but there is a lot of humanity in his portraits. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that unlike most modern portraiture almost all his subjects sit in full costume, often including face masks or makeup, often looking faintly ridiculous. Yet even his most ugly or unsettling clown canvasses are about more than just their novelty or decorative value. These are weary, burdened, people sitting on display.

Kuhn ended his life in psychiatric facility. During the 1940s he suffered from severe mental difficulties and spent every moment he could at the circus - usually the Ringling Brothers - where he was said to attend "religiously." He died in Bellevue Hospital in 1949 from a perforated ulcer.

Although best recognised for his "clown portraits," Kuhn was a highly skilled and incredibly versatile draughtsman who left behind some 3000 figure studies. He helped organise the seminal exhibition in the history of modern American art. He was respected as a sculptor, illustrator, cartoonist and printmaker, as well as being the sad clown guy.

"Chorus Captain" Oil on canvas, 1935. Yale University Art Gallery

"White Clown"

"Portrait of a young clown"

"Roberto" 1946

"Seated Clown" 1929

"Showgirl" 1930

"Sparrow" 1946

"Dominique clown" 1947

"Frightwig" Oil on hardboard, 1940.

"Girl in a clown suit" 1944

"Hedda in a green bodice" 1944


"Acrobat in maroon and blue" 1938

"Chico in silk hat"


"Clown in blue" 1933

Extensive biography and overview of Kuhn's career
The Walt Kuhn collection at the Smithsonian Archives
The Armory Show

1 comment:

Ann Saint-Gelais said...

Merci j'aime beaucoup! Ann