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The History of One Work. “Pantomime” by Sergey Sudeikin

I was dressed in colorful flaps,

White, red, in ugly mask

Laughing and grimacing at the crossroads,

And I told funny fairy-tales...’

Alexander Blok (1880–1921)

“The Harlequin’s song”, April 1903


These words best describe the character represented on the canvas Pantomime (1914) by Sergey Sudeykin, also known as Serge Soudeikine (1882–1946), from the collection of the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus.

Who is this unknown hero in “colorful flaps” that amuses crowd? Of course, it is Harlequin, the symbol of theatre, festival and carnival. Such outstanding artists as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall have been fascinated by the image of this play-actor.

Sergey Sudeykin was not an exception too. This theatrical avant-garde artist is one of the best 20th century painters. He was a close associate of a famous film director Vsevolod Meyerhold which had been cooperated with chamber theatres and literature and art cabarets. In 1920 Sudeykin emigrated to Paris, where he became a stage-painter at cabaret ‘The Bat’ and organized two performances for the troupe of Anna Pavlova. Two years later, the artist settled in New York, where he made staging of ballets ‘Petrushka’ (1925), ‘The Nightingale’ (1926) by Igor Stravinsky for the Metropolitan Opera, the opera ‘Sadko’ by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1930) and ‘The Flying Dutchman’ by Richard Wagner (1931)…

In an effort to combine painting and theatre, Sudeykin managed to achieve such syncretism which attracted attention to the painter’s creative activity of most loyal critics at the beginning of his artistic career. They marked a great similarity between a painting for exhibition and a scene design for a future performance.

On the picture Pantomime the artist depicted a similar space arrangement, gave a decorative and metaphorical designation of the environment willingly using the symbolism of theatrical environment and costumes. But the Pantomime is not a painting in theatre, but the theatre in the painting. And even more – it is a picture-performance.

At the small-size picture we can see a mise en scène of commedia dell’arte. The subject of the painting is rather simple and naive: two couples of lovers want to marry and old men as usual are interfering to lovers’ connection. Men-servants came to aid them and help to get round the olds.

An uncomplicated scene depicting lovers in the background and the servants involved in intrigue which are represented in the foreground, at first thought may seem very simple. However, it is the topmost semantic layer only under that is a subtext: it is an opportunity to feel unstable boundaries between theatre and life, dream and reality, and also an attempt to mystify prosiness, “to hide” it in an acting space.

Here the image of Harlequin has features of contemporary’s character, of the artist’s life in general; it shows a construct image of the artist which is playing and improvising all through his life.

So, who is Harlequin? Is he a jester, clown, actor, artist, or any of us? His history counts half a millennium and this image had experienced significant changes over the years. In France he was called Dominique, and in Germany he became Hanswurst.

The first mentions about him could be found in The Divine Comedy by Dante where he was presented as Alchino – a head of the demons’ group. But he achieved an enormous popularity in Italian street theatre that combined the features of farce and “scientific comedy”. This theatre was like a carnival where characters had masks and attributes explaining and satirizing the character types of real life: a greedy merchant, a scientist-charlatan etc. The performance did not have a clearly defined scenario: a head of group created a plot and actors improvised in front of a viewer. The action was accompanied by dances, songs, jokes and opprobrious words in all Italian dialects that particularly amused a crowd.

Harlequin was the most widespread mask. At the beginning of his “career”, he had been speaking in Bergamasque dialect. He was an extremely simple-minded and a silly peasant who came to Venice looking for a better life. His costume consisted of a peasant linen shirt and long wide pantaloons with colored patches on clothing of a poor guy.

Harlequin had the character of a big child. He is a bit of a coward, hungry and greedy, but at the same time he is charming. Striving to help to his owner, he made everything wrong. Basically, it was the mask of blockhead who ordered a coffin and was going to be at his own funeral. And even a wooden sword did not save him.

In the 17th century, the patches on the Harlequin’s costume have become symmetrical triangles, on the head he began to wear a small cap decorated with a hare’s tail as a symbol of cowardice. But the most important thing is that henceforth Harlequin had ceased to be a bumpkin and became more like a buffoon.

In the 18th century, Harlequin became a crafty intriguer and jokes with a sarcastic character. Since that time he could communicate with a public in many languages. Harlequin became a gallant beloved and an inventive pretender dressed in tight-fitting costume that signified a resourcefulness and cunning of character. A hat with hare’s tail was replaced by three-cornered dandy hat.

To the 20th century, Harlequin becomes a character both of fine art, and visualization of artist-improvisator who is not constrained by traditional themes and subjects. He is inseparable from a bohemian life; he was an abstract image represented by painter or artist. And his costume of multicolored pieces was the personification of stylistic cocktail, “patchwork” of creative possibilities of the early 20th century.

A new generation of painters breaking all stereotypes, as if they forgot aesthetic norms and common sense, could combine any characters, people and mythical creatures. They use methods of dimensioned disproportion – they did not follow canons of anatomy, perspective and logic. It explains a particular predilection of the 20th century painters to the image of jesters, circus artists, clowns and skomorokh. Harlequin and a painter actually became synonymous.

It should be noted that today the works by Sergey Sudeykin are at leading world museums as well as at rich private collections. The National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus houses one of his outstanding works – the painting Pantomime which is able to commove, create a variety of associations and impressions.


Ekaterina Izofatova,

Senior Researcher

at the Department of Research and Educational Work

The article was published in the journal “Alesya” No.4/ 2015