Morphing moonlight : gender, masks and carnival mayhem: the figure of Pierrot in Giraud, Ensor, Dowson and Beardsley
Kreuiter, Allison Dorothy
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Pierrot’s snowy garments with their touch of black, the tragic, frozen mien of the mask above the baggy, over-large habit became a prevailing symbol of artistic expression during the fin de siècle. The silent white-masked figure became the disguise for the artist in assailing and exposing the hypocrisy, complacency and posturing that the artist saw as the masquerade of society. Beneath the clown’s guise the artist could imaginatively act out all the forbidden and darker secrets concealed beneath the inscribed societal conventions of humankind. Pierrot could murder, commit incest, get riotously drunk, rape, be a bigamist, commit suicide, be morbidly depressed, steal, be gluttonous, rage, hate, be excessively carnal or ascetic, a hermaphrodite or androgyne or entirely genderless in his transgression, flouting all and every taboo. Using the mask of the clown as a distancing technique, the artist was vicariously experiencing all that was contrary to the societal mores and laws against which he or she was in rebellion. In this the blending of gender became of paramount importance. The androgyne and the hermaphrodite were, like Pierrot, leading images in the arts of the fin de siècle. They blurred the reality of the division of gender and called into question all the attributes that were apportioned to what was male and what female. Pierrot was seen as partaking of this gender indecision because the sexuality that lay behind the loose white garments was entirely uncertain, as were the lurking carnal appetites of the silvery, moonlit clown. Gender was as ghostly and as paradoxical as the clown’s own nature. Pierrot’s origins in the Commedia dell’arte and his original role as a buffoon had altered by the late-nineteenth century. He had come to represent a silent malevolence and shadowy evil which was subtly contained within the lineaments of his lunar-coloured garments. The pantomime role had involved the challenging and transgressing of boundaries and the world of the demonic was invariably present, though it never triumphed; rather, laughter and love prevailed with repeated beatings and roistering. With the Decadent movement of the fin de siècle the demonic became the prevailing tone, filled with a sardonic bitterness and searing, although hidden pain. Pierrot’s silence and pallor were seen as the ultimate attributes with which to convey the trangressive and mordant nature of the liminal artistic life. The clown’s achromatic colour and his muteness were aspects that resembled the unsullied emptiness of page and canvas, and his mutable, quicksilver nature was as indeterminate and fluid as any interpretation or subjective artistic representation. The artist could thus mould the figure to represent what was wished and in so doing reveal how slippery and subjective any representation is. In the chapters on Giraud, Ensor, Dowson and Beardsley this thesis explores the carnivalesque and transgressive attributes of the wan clown as a central concern in the work of these artists. Kristevan and Bakhtinian theory on the carnivalesque and the relation of language to transgression will structure and guide the tenets and arguments of the thesis. The mutability and fluid metamorphosis from one state to another, disregarding boundaries, is what Pierrot will be seen to do in the works of the chosen artists. Indeterminate gender and lunatic emotions will be shown as essential to the shadowy and insubstantial nature that allows the clown to ignore the extant social morals, laws and boundaries. Giraud, Ensor, Dowson and Beardsley could perhaps be regarded as marginal artists of the late nineteenth century, but considerations of marginality and greatness are based on subjective choice. These artists were a part of the fabric of their time and are strands that braid together the thematic concerns and representations of the fin de siècle, and this gives to their work and importance, however liminal that might be.
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