25 May - 22 Sep. 2013

Jack B Yeats - Enter the Clowns: The Circus as a Metaphor

This exhibition will look at the circus as a metaphor in the work of Jack B Yeats. Throughout his 70 year painting career, Yeats expressed themes of mental illness, loneliness, political and social change, pacifism, cruelty, racism and grief in his portrayal of circus life, and of the clown in particular. The exhibition will be drawn from a variety of public and private sources and will feature a number of works rarely exhibited publicly. The show will be one of the corner stones of Tread Softly, Sligo’s new festival celebrating the artistic heritage of the Yeats family.

*Dr. Hilary Pyle will Officially open the exhibition.

Early joyous and celebratory visions of the circus are considered here alongside later, more dramatic and carnivalesque works. Many of Yeats’ works from 1920 onwards present the circus as an allegory for socio-political instability both in Ireland and abroad, as well as a metaphor for aspects the human condition such as grief, loneliness and mortality.

The circus was a recurring theme in nineteenth century European art with artists such as Manet, Seurat, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec all depicting circuses and performers with an intense dynamism. The growth in leisure time for the wealthy throughout the nineteenth century increased the popularity of the circus. For artists, the circus represented a time when real life was suspended and audiences gave themselves up to magic and illusion. Many of these artists, including Jack B. Yeats, identified strongly with the figure of the clown. Much of Yeats’ works suggest that he used the clown persona to explore feelings of isolation and alienation that he may have felt came with the creative way of life.

Yeats’ examination of the tragicomic figure of the clown can be seen in a number of works such as Johnny Patterson Singing “Bridget Donoghue” (1928), They Love me (1947), Glory (1946) and perhaps most poignantly, in Alone (1944). Many of these works are based on the famous Irish performer Johnny Patterson. Patterson had success in the USA with Barnum’s Circus before returning to Ireland. While Patterson was greatly celebrated for his performances, his troubled private life was also well documented. Yeats went to see Patterson perform when he was a child growing up in Sligo and it is likely that the duality of Patterson’s persona was something that captured the imagination of the young artist. Patterson’s political beliefs were often expressed in the songs he wrote and performed. One song entitled ‘Do the Best for one and Other’ urged Protestants and Catholics to put their differences aside and unite behind Charles Stuart Parnell and tragically, Johnny was killed by an angry mob during a performance of this song.

Another work of note is The Last Dawn but one (1948), which depicts the travelling circus being dismantled and packed up by a ghostly company as the dawn breaks behind them. The painting has a strong suggestion of the passing of time and mankind’s mortality, however scholars have also noted that the circus folk, packing up and moving could reference post-war migrants in 1940s Europe.

This exhibition, which continues until 1 September 2013, features works from prestigious public collections such as those of The National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunt Museum, Limerick and Limerick City Gallery of Art.