My son’s breath warmed my neck as I lost myself in the wrinkle of his wrist. Blackness. Quiet. Then the skeleton: we’d barely entered the dark room when it danced headfirst from the ceiling. Its mouth passed so close I could smell its death, the boney Bo Jangles almost taking my 10-month-old along with it. Instantly, an infant’s rage overwhelmed a whole bunch of other spotlit jolts. Fright, not delight. What was I thinking? Had I forgotten my own experiences of carnivals? When my boy and I finally escaped back outside to balloons and cotton candy, I looked again at the rainbowed word–each cockeyed letter a lie–scrawled huge across the sunlit walls of the makeshift shelter: FUNHOUSE.
For me, carnivals mean bad/tasty food, being young, rides you threw up from, thrills, threats, sweat, and joyful scares. There are great and foul smells and not winning prizes off shelves. In my adolescence, it was where you tried to pick up girls and you fought guys. It was where skeletons didn’t die. Fun, danger, and sleight of hand–when the carnies came to town, my friends and I were there.
Honore Daumier’s “The Strongman” captures my youthful take on the itinerant world of fire eaters and sword swallowers as I roller coaster from picture viewer to sideshow spectator, from old man to child. The French, 19th-century artist poses, costumes, lights, even provides dialogue for his shady cast of characters. “Step right up and pay your dime. Watch bare hands bend steel bars! Marvel at . . .!” Here, a drawn-back curtain leads to a seductive unknown. Darkly exciting, but no place for an infant. Behind the curtain, any minute a balloon will pop or a skeleton might drop. The teen in me clamors for a ticket, enters, and sits beside a guy with missing teeth. The splintery bench is uncomfortable. It smells in here. The toothless guy and I wait impatiently for the man of strength to do his thing. I don’t mind the wait, the smell, or the splinters; the performance will be worth it—just look at the strong-arm pitch for the strongman act going on outside.
Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Daumier’s twosome is a duo of opposites. The announcer’s forearm rockets out of a loose-fitting, high contrast garment, while his stationary partner’s skin-tight, subtly toned t-shirt and ridiculously bright red pants girdle a performer with muscular arms, a slow, gracefully curved wrist, and a pot belly. Like back-up singers, the two men airing it out behind the hawker support his booming voice, while the only person behind the silent he-man is silent, too. The strongman wraps himself up in a warm, self-contained pose, perhaps, in part, to withstand his cool-colored partner hustling you and me and every other “mark” he sees. His arm thunders in a lightning-like thrust. The figure of speech ends with an exclamation point—the hand. Connecting the two main characters, it’s the only hand in the image given any special attention. His friend hardly has one. For emphasis, the artist loads it up with pigment and echoes it with the pulled-back curtain’s folds that splay like fingers.
From hands, we go to legs, as left and right below are reversed above. A piece out of order in a jigsaw puzzle, the poster hanging in the painting’s top left corner completes the chubby Hercules. With back arched, chin up, trimmed mustache, and slicked down hair, he stands proud and tall. Daumier pits his pose against the gestures of each of the background figures who repeat the diagonal of the hawker’s shadowed torso. His harangue seems to have set those behind him in motion, while gale winds wouldn’t budge the star of the show. Or would they. The steadfast entertainer is altogether full of himself, taken with his own stature–even though he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Daumier, ever the jester, is poking fun, but the joke is over the head of the figure of brawn. Also overhead is, perhaps, the strangest detail of the painting: the other poster. The announcer points us straight to its corner, which appears to balance awkwardly on the strongman’s head. Does the poster advertise a sideshow anomaly? Are we looking at a freakish time traveler creeping from Dana Schutz’s sunshine into Daumier’s darkness? It doesn’t look like the man with folded arms has much to say about it . . . about anything. But who knows?
* * *
Although quiet, my dad did have a lot to say. I wish I asked him more about his carnival days or about the carnival within him. Too late now; even sleight of hand can’t open the closed fist of time. Once, with his fingers gently stroking my wrist at a circus, my father said that he had to look to make sure it was his fingers near my hand and not his father’s fingers near his. I didn’t get what he meant, then. I get it now. We saw strongmen, hawkers, knife throwers, and death-defying flyers. They beguiled me as much as clowns, up close, creeped me out. I still try to keep my distance from those costumed performers with their sheet-white, caked-on makeup juiced by freaky, painted-way-over-the-lines smiles. Time, however, has defused the charge most of the other attractions once held for me, which is too bad; after all, where else besides in fear and sorrow do witching hours spotlight afternoons? In a painting like “The Strongman” is where.
My grandson is the age his father was when his father’s warm breath comforted me inside the funhouse. My son’s house is fun and warm and filled with unscary magic. He knows more about infants than I did. He’ll wait a few years before trying to entertain his child with Daumier’s playfully grave and desperate shadows.
When I recently told him the Bo Jangles story, my boy, now a strong man, replied that he’s never found skeletons or clowns creepy and that he likes the dark. As he spoke, he tenderly stroked the bones of my wrinkled wrist.
Barry Nemett, Unrepentant Jester, 1986, Pastel on paper, 132 x 118 inches
I created Unrepentant Jester in 1986 around the time my two children were born and shortly after I saw Daumier’s The Strong Man for the first time.