Abstract

Modern artists have long been fascinated with the pantomime, circus, and other comic entertainments, and since the late 19th century, many modernists have made use of the figure of the clown in advancing their avant-garde agendas. Turvey calls this strain within modernism “comedic modernism,” by which he does not mean humorous modernism, but rather the employment of the slapstick comedian as a subject and/or model in modernist theory and practice. Turvey accounts for the pervasive appeal of the clown to modernists by examining the European avant-garde's appropriation of film comics in the interwar period. He argues that comedian comedy's major conventions accorded with and sometimes shaped modernist innovations in this period, and that there was no single reason modern artists were drawn to the figure of the slapstick film comedian. Moreover, he suggests, most of the forms of assimilation of the clown by modernists were already established by the time they turned toward American popular cinema in the 1910s. Turvey identifies several features of slapstick comedy that modernists fastened on to: the de-psychologization and objectification of the comedian; the figure of the alienated, “sad clown”; incongruity in gags and narrative structures; the satire of the bourgeoisie and the carnivalesque leveling of social distinctions; the release of primitive, instinctual behavior; and the privileging of often rebellious objects. He then shows how Rene Clair synthesized some of these variants in Entr'acte (1924), the celebrated avant-garde short he made with Dadaist Francis Picabia, as well as some of his other more popular modernist films of the 1920s.

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