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Variations on a Dream: Watteau, David Bowie and the commedia dell’arte

David Bowie and Jean-Antoine Watteau. Not two names you would immediately associate together, not least as they were born over two centuries apart.  In this blog by guest writer Adam Busiakiewicz, a guide lecturer at the Wallace Collection, he explores the connections between these two remarkable men, who were both icons of their respective times.

The question of what makes great art is impossible to answer. However, those artists who attempt to capture the spirit of their age are often the most celebrated. As a guide lecturer at the Wallace Collection I am tasked with bringing to life a prized collection of fine and decorative art which spans several centuries and cultures. When confronted by the treasure trove of the so-called fête galantes of the early eighteenth century, undoubtedly the most ambiguous works of art to unpick during a talk, one is constantly reminded how obscure and modern these paintings can be. Many would accept these bucolic painterly visions as pretty but difficult to engage with, but I have always been convinced that there are many different ways of unlocking their meaning.

IMG_41264Jean-Antoine Watteau and David Bowie, separated by over two hundred and fifty years, share more in common than one might imagine. Both artists lived through periods of remarkable political, social and artistic upheaval. Bowie’s 1970s was a period of enormous relaxation of attitudes towards sexuality, drug taking and morals, all fanned by mass media. Régence France, in which Watteau was arguably his most productive, wasn’t entirely dissimilar. King Louis XIV was a monarch who held a ruthless control of the arts; after his death in 1715, France went through a similar period of relaxation, enjoying increased wealth and explosion of artistic creativity. Watteau and Bowie’s response to these changes, and attempts to make sense of it through the mediums of painting, theatre and music, has made them icons of their representative eras in modern times.

The language of theatre unites these artists above all. More specifically, both artists employed the commedia dell’arte to give life to their art. In this ancient Italian theatrical art form, stock characters are placed within certain improvised scenes which explore any given theme. They are encountered in most of Watteau’s key works often dressed in identifiable costume, although technically not in any formal stage or performance scenario.

Like many aspiring entertainers, David Bowie began his career as a mediocre singer-songwriter before he landed on Earth as Ziggy Stardust in 1972. During the formative years in the late 1960s, Bowie joined the theatre company of the mime artist Lindsay Kemp (b.1938), an experience which he often regarded the most influential in his obsession with image. Kemp introduced Bowie to the art form of the commedia dell’arte, for which Bowie composed new music about its various characters. In 1970 their touring production of Pierrot in Turquoise or The Looking Glass Murders was filmed by Scottish Television (search the Internet to find recordings). The songs featured within this production capture Bowie’s reactions to Pierrot, the innocent sad clown, sometimes viewed as the representation of artistic melancholy, a character which the musician seemingly identified himself with the most. One is instantly reminded of Watteau’s own full length treatment of the subject in the Louvre, representing the figure standing alone awkwardly with actors and a suffering donkey behind him. Perhaps this painter, who has in the past been interpreted as being a morose and misanthropic character, may have also felt some connection to Pierrot.

Watteau, it may be argued, often used the characters of the commedia dell’arte to explore the prevalent questions of the changing attitudes in etiquette and discourse in society. In Voulez vous triompher des Belles? (Do you want to conquer beautiful women?) Watteau presents us with an attempt of the mischievous Harlequin to engage with Columbine, Pierrot’s true love and sometimes wife.

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In the eighteenth century, fear was rife amongst the gentile that morals were loosening and women, once figures to be admired and pursued, were now pursuing their own desires. For Watteau, Columbine personified this as she played the heartstrings of Pierrot and Harlequin. Whereas in eighteenth century France, this was shocking, in twentieth century Britain, in the time of sexual enlightenment and a surge towards greater equality between the sexes, Bowie understood and often referenced this in his music, performance and personas. The seductive powers of women, encountered in some of his most popular songs such as Suffragette City, Jean Genie and China Girl, are often compared to drug addiction; another reoccurring theme in his lyrics. One wonders whether Watteau’s A women at her toilet, shocking in its day for the portrayal of an ordinary contemporary nude woman, might have been the artist’s own impression of a modern pleasure seeking lady of eighteenth century France.

P439The exploration of themes and events through characters, in which elements of his age were distilled, connects both artists. Bowie’s knack for constant reinvention through dramatic characterisation, including glam-rock fame-obsessed Ziggy Stardust; the rebel-rousing Halloween Jack; the self-absorbed and self-destructive Thin White Duke; all share their roots in the commedia dell’arte. When called out by the media in 1976 for displaying fascist sympathies Bowie retorted that;

I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theatre, and only theatre […] What you see on stage isn’t sinister. It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976.”[1]

Earlier in 1971 when discussing his music he said;

I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message.”[2]

Bowie often returned to the character of Pierrot: most notably in the 1980 music video Ashes to Ashes. The imagery used in this enigmatic film, at the time the most expensive music video ever produced, evoked the end of the 1970s and his killing off of Pierrot the clown. His final nod to Pierrot was in the 2013 music video for Love is Lost, where the ageing rock star cradles a creepy puppet of Pierrot to signify the end of his long journey with this character.

Watteau’s premature death at the age of thirty-six didn’t stop his genre of art from spreading across Europe with an afterlife that spanned centuries. Equally, there are few living musicians who don’t owe something to Bowie’s own enduring legacy to popular culture.

Two great and important artists, separated by just under three hundred years, yet, united here briefly.

by Adam Busiakiewicz

 

To hear Adam’s podcast on Bowie, Watteau and the Wallace Collection – click here

 

An aside

Although I have yet to find firm evidence to suggest Bowie was a regular visitor to the Wallace Collection, there are several interesting clues to suggest that he might have been. After his death in January, the collection was included on many Bowie ‘London Trails’, suggesting there is at least some anecdotal evidence of him being a fan of the museum. Indeed, Bowie was even pictured on Manchester Square for the cover to his EP David Bowie 1965! Might he have taken this chance to pop through the doors into Hertford House?

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[1] David Bowie cited in E. Devereux, A. Dillane, M. Power, David Bowie: critical perspectives, London 2015, p. 35

[2] Ibid. pp.35-36.

 

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