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Monday, March 13, 2017

Clown Paintings

A group of clown by S.J. Mulak, 1975
In general, the popularity of various painting content areas hasn't changed very much down through the years. Landscapes have been popular for several centuries now and portraits far longer than that. On the other hand, religious works have slipped down several notches as churches found better things to do with their money than subsidize artists; and paintings of nudes are now far less popular since other visual media has been shown to be far more powerful purveyors of eroticism. Genre painting reached it's zenith with the pre-TV Golden Era Illustration during the first half of 20th-century, and in recent years has shifted its focused to cute little children and their cute, little cuddly pets. Any slack in that area has been taken up with far less cuddly wildlife paintings. Abstract Expressionism was something of a novel, art-for-art's-sake fad to begin with so, considered as a major content area, is barely worth mentioning. Likewise, still-lifes never were all that popular and still aren't. It would seem that automobiles are now the favorite of those liking still-lifes.
Howdy Doody and Clarabell, 1947-60
Ronald McDonald the collector's item.
Most of these shifts have been subtle, spread out over decades or even centuries. However, in one case, the popularity of one painting content area hasn't simply faded, it has plummeted. If you haven't already guessed, based on the examples above and below, I'm talking about clowns. As a child, the first clown I can recall was Clarabell on the old Howdy Doody Show during the early 1950s (above). Shortly thereafter, (1963) anoth-er clown first appeared, the famous Ronald McDonald (ab-ove, left) played by the then not-so-famous Willard Scott, later a weatherman on NBC's Today Show. In fact, he also took on the whiteface makeup of Bozo the Clown for a short time (below, upper image). All of these figures have been documented by painters over the years, and some (such as Bozo, below, lower image) not in the most flattering light. Comedian Red Skelton made an entire career out of not just being a clown, but in painting them as well.

Upper image: Bozo the Clown, digital painting by Brazilian artist, Nelson Nakashima.
Lower image: Evil Clown, Vectorish.
Emmet Kelly's Weary
Willie by Oberstein.

Another iconic clown, broke with the white-face traditional clown makeup going back more than one-hundred years to Joseph Grimaldi. He started out as a trapeze act, but after 1931 devoted himself entirely to his hobo character, "Weary Willie," based upon the hobos of the Great Depression Era. Besides in the circus, clowns are often featured at other enter-tainment events. Back during the 1970s, a Kelly type hobo clown was a repeated visitor to the Salt Fork Arts Festival in Cambridge, Ohio, where we often showed work. The two paintings below were from photos taken just seconds apart. I call them Man in Makeup 5 and 6. He was advanced in years and slightly hard of hearing. This type of clown has long been a favorite for artists, offering them an opportunity to playfully depict both humor and pathos.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Man in Makeup 5 and 6, 1978, Jim Lane
The abrupt decline in popularity of clown paintings can be mostly laid upon one individual and upon those artist painting clowns since the arrest of a clown named John Wayne Gacy in 1978. Many people, children and even adults, have long thought of clowns as "creepy." Gacy became known as the "Killer Clown," in that he would often dress up as a clown for charity events and children's parties. Gacy became infamous for luring teenage boys to his Cook County, Illinois, home and murdering them by asphyxiation or strangulation. Many of his victims were sexually assault and raped. This deranged man killed 33 young men over the span of 6 years. After being convicted of all 33 murders, he spent 14 years on death row before he was finally executed on May 10, 1994.

Clowns have taken on a whole new evil persona in the forty years since Gacy's "Pogo" gave them a bad name.
Although Gacy was no doubt responsible for jumpstarting the evil image so synonymous with clowns today, artist have, in large part, been guilty of perpetuating this image. Images of clowns which often frighten pre-teen children, seem to take on a sort of evil magnetism as those same children get older and become teenagers. Evil clowns are one of the best-selling items in the inventory of T-shirt merchants, not to mention young artists and those in the tattoo profession. In researching photos for this piece, some of the clowns scared even me. Incidentally, when I mentioned to my wife a moment ago that I was writing about clowns today, she suddenly broke into something approaching a "rant" as to the fact that "all clowns are evil" et cetera, et cetera. I did my best to convince her that her reaction was precisely what I was writing about and that, all clowns were not evil. I...don't think I succeeded.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Man in Makeup 4, 1972, Jim Lane


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