Pierrot has come a long way since its commedia dell’arte pantomime roots . The classic sad-eyed porcelain face and mimesis of the hapless clown, he was eschewed in the Harlequinade for Harlequin by fickle Columbine, again and again. Thus, he’s forever the broken-hearted but playful clown sitting under the full moon. Experimental film maker Kenneth Anger did a typically trippy dive into the Harlequin story with his short, ‘Rabbit’s Moon’, a very strange and beguiling little film.
With its long-running theatrical tradition (the first popular era notably around the 17th century) the archetype continues to inspire many artists in film, music and visual arts, particularly because the image of vulnerability, innocence and beauty crosses gender, era and age. Cocteau was endlessly fascinated by Pierrot, paying homage in sketches and film work.
A young, tousle-haired Bowie, alongside Lindsay Kemp, was ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’ in the experimental sixties stage play, a role he reprised (more iconically, some may say) in the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video (above) in 1980, also referencing his early muse and ballerina Hermione with her pointe shoe in his hand, and a ballerina behind him, alongside Steve Strange et al.
Women too have explored this exquisite pale figure, perfect as he is considered an androgynous, somewhat shape-shifting clown. Sarah Bernhardt, darling of the Victorian stage, made for a particularly soulful vision in white, becoming muse to Felix Nadar, photographer, maverick and balloon enthusiast (see also his Legrand image at the top). It’s extraordinary to think how forward-thinking this picture is- it’s so timeless, it could have been taken yesterday.
Bjork, always a fan of composer and polymath Schoenberg, performed his ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ across several live shows. It is a notoriously difficult piece of avant-garde music which appealed to her, as she said it was never intended for ‘trained’ voices. No stranger to the dressing-up box, she has emulated his look, albeit in a more pared-back, minimalist way, in this iconic image by Juergen Teller.
I was an eighties kid. I had Pierrot everything: pics, wallpaper, dolls etc., and it’s only now, looking back I can see how kitsch it all was, but I still have a soft spot for its Sara Moon quality. Mira Fujito was definitely inspired by Moon in her artwork, all sort of gauzy and soft-focus in that Cadbury’s Flake way. There was an almost Proustian rush finding this image today: yet again, I’m ten, caught between ‘The A Team’, homework, Nina Bawden books and dreamy crushes on pretty boy pop stars like Adam Ant, desperate for art, esoteric music and theatre and ideas, but not quite realising it yet. Pierrot, along with loud indie music and Angela Carter… you have quite a lot to answer for.