Commedia dell'arte offered much more for postwar artists than familiarity alone. As a genre both venerable and contemporary, it fulfilled the idea of modern classicism at the same time that it provided an alternative story line to the ancient myths that so powerfully gripped postwar European culture.1
The performing body, whether presented through sports, circus, or theater, was a major part of the return to order. The body—developed, remade, and perfected—was the new measure of objective value in contrast to the mind, now considered overly abstract and subjective.
In an effort to distance themselves from the recent past, avant-garde artists avoided references to anything that resembled old academic ideals. They sought inspiration in surprising places: icon painting, primitive art, the circus, music halls, and commedia dell'arte. Also known as the Italian Comedy, commedia dell'arte is a form of theater that originated in the streets and market places of the early Italian Renaissance, though its roots can be traced as far as back ancient Greek and Roman theater. It was characterized by masked types and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. Troupes of actors, each of whom had a specific function or role, traveled throughout Europe to present their shows, and the art form continued in popularity until the 18th century. "A Latinate family of man, the commedia dell'arte represented normalcy in a period taken with the idea of common sense and anxious to cast off prewar emotionalism: ‘No Othello, no Hamlet, no Phèdre or Chimera, no one who agitates his mind with overpowering emotions,' wrote scholar Pierre Louis Duchartre, ‘the commedia dell'arte is a complete world where each can find his nourishment.'" 2
Gino Severini, a former Futurist who turned to neoclassicism, became a specialist in commedia dell'arte subjects, as in The Two Pulchinellas (Les deux Polichinelles), June 1922. The character Pulchinella is normally dressed in white and wears a black mask with long nose. His black-and-white costume symbolizes the merging between dualities. A vindictive character, he often pretends to not know what is happening to trick people or physically attacks them. Severini presents two masked, somewhat mysterious figures. Because their facial expressions cannot be seen, their feelings and intentions also cannot be known. Viewers may find this uncertainty disturbing.
1 Kenneth E. Silver, "A More Durable Self," in Silver, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918—1936, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2010), p. 43.
2 Ibid., p. 43.
Show: The Two Pulchinellas (Les deux Polichinelles), June 1922
- Have the class describe this painting as carefully as possible. What colors, patterns, and textures do the students notice?
- This painting contains two figures. Who might they be? What can one learn about them by looking at their poses, expressions, and the way they are dressed?
- How would the class describe the mood of this painting? How has Severini created this feeling?
- Would your students like to attend a show featuring these performers? Why or why not?
- Compare Severini’s pre-Word Futurist paintings with those that followed the war. How are they different? How are they similar? Which does the class prefer? Why?
- Working in small groups students can create a commedia dell’arte scene that animates a Pulchinella along with other characters like Pierrot and Harlequin.
- In commedia dell’arte, the sad clown Pierrot loves Columbine, who prefers Harlequin. Usually unmasked with a whitened face, Pierrot “wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide White pantaloons.” 1 Fundamentally naïve, this trusting soul is often placed for a fool. Harlequin is known for his physical agility, often doing cartwheels or flips. A competitive lothario, he lusts for all women and often makes fun of other suitors. He is a “slow thinker” who “desperately tries to hide his lack of brains.” 2 Pulchinella stands out in the group thanks to his peculiar voice, the sharp and vibrant qualities of which contribute to the show’s intense tempo.
- In this theatrical form, actors worked without scripts, following only written scenarios that outlined the action. “Players made their performances accessible to all social classes, removing language as a barrier through the use of skillful mime techniques, universally understandable characters, traditional gags and pranks, identifiable masks, [and] broad physical comedy.” 3 Students should write a scenario outlining the action and then perform a scene in front of the rest of the class.
1 Wikipedia, s.v. “Pierrot,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierrot (accessed December 22, 2010).
2 Wikipedia, s.v. “Harlequin,” Harlequin,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlequin (accessed December 22, 2010).
3 New World Encyclopedia, s.v. “Commedia dell’arte,”
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Commedia_dell’arte (accessed December 22, 2010).