An artist joins the circus

Seventy years have passed since the death of Marc Gonthier (1895–1954), an artist who left behind a technically impressive oeuvre of prints spanning a wide array of motifs. His works depict lake and mountain landscapes surrounding Lake Geneva, farmers toiling in Bern and the dazzling world of circus performance.

By Kristina Pfister

The circus is a place of wonder and amazement, but also of illusion and deception. Artists manipulate, shape and trick the immediate perception of their audiences. Scenes from circuses and fairs form a significant part of Marc Gonthier’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates a lasting fascination for the eccentricities of circus life. 

The arena at night

Gonthier Arene
Marc Gonthier: “Arène”; wood engraving on laid paper, 1936

The wood engraving “Arène” shows two acrobats performing a daring trick on a well-lit stage. One acrobat is balancing on the other’s head; upside down and with all limbs extended, he appears to float. The stage – the front of which is emblazoned with the initials “MG” – is illuminated by spotlights. Two trapezes and a slightly open, rustling curtain promise the audience further flights of fancy and amazing feats. The faces of the spectators on the left reflect the artificial light from the stage. 

Gonthier Arene
Detail from the “Arène” wood engraving

No facial expressions have been drawn, however, and the faces of the audience appear as bright dots amid a sea of darkness. They serve as an important element in the image – both in terms of composition and content – connecting the spectators with the artists on stage. The contrast between black and white, which is created by the saturated print colour and the artificial light of the spotlights, harmonises with the scripted drama unfolding on stage. Gonthier himself bears witness to the dazzling performance depicted here. He has assumed the perspective of a spectator, observing both the audience and the acrobats on stage. As the creator of the print, he passes on this experience to his viewers – the artist becomes the director. The balancing act on stage is not what is central to the visual message, but rather the dynamic exchange between the viewers and the performers. 

The circus as a recurring motif

Gonthier Chiromancienne
Marc Gonthier: “Chiromancienne” (palm reader); wood engraving on laid paper, 1948

Gonthier created numerous other prints that highlight his fascination with the circus. The visitors to the fair in his prints “Chiromancienne” and “Voyante extralucide” take part in seemingly supernatural moments with palm readers and psychics, becoming volunteers in the illusion. The composition melds the artists and spectators together; for the duration of the act, the two become one. Bridget Alsdorf describes this phenomenon in her 2022 book “Gawkers”: “This mirroring and flipping between performer and badaud conveys the tight connection between badauderie and the making and viewing of Art.”

The art of illusion

Gonthier Voyante
Marc Gonthier: “Voyante extralucide” (clairvoyant); wood engraving on laid paper, 1946

The acrobats are dependent on the goodwill of the spectators, who in turn allow themselves to be amazed by the illusions playing out on stage. In this way, the audience is turned into the object and “recipient” of the performance. The art of illusion is repeatedly reborn in the presence of onlookers.

Art in particular is a medium that makes the process of illusion possible. The artist influences his audience through the way he works – when cutting the wooden printing plate with his stylus and graver, he shapes both the material and the perception of the viewer. Gonthier also became a master of illusion through his use of woodcutting techniques. Using sophisticated shading techniques, he depicted scenes that suggested objects in motion, like the rustling curtains in “Arène”. He marked the print with his initials in the upper lefthand corner and also emblazoned them on the front of the stage. This view has striking similarities with a wooden printing plate itself. 

Gonthier Druckplatte
Marc Gonthier: Printing plate for “Arène”; end grain wood engraving, 1936 (Photo: NL, Simon Schmid)

Gonthier’s image composition in “Arène” suggests an equivalency between circus artists and visual artists. He conveys the close connection between producing and viewing art, a process in which a work of art only achieves its full development once it is perceived by an audience. An artist’s capability is measured by how well he can model the viewer’s perception – something that Gonthier pulls off superbly in this image.

Marc Gonthier wurde am 6. März 1895 als Robert Alfred Gonthier in Lausanne geboren. 1913 bis 1915 Schüler an der École des Beaux-Arts in Genf. Ab 1917 zweijähriger Aufenthalt und Ausbildung in Oschwand (BE) bei Cuno Amiet. 1920 erstes von drei Stipendien der Commission Fédérale des Beaux-Arts. Er fand in Lausanne ein Atelier bei Mon-Repos und wurde Mitglied der Société des peintres, sculpteurs et architectes Suisses (SPSAS). Teilnahme an nationalen Kunstausstellungen in Genf, Bern und Zürich. 1953 stellte er in Verbindung mit der Künstlervereinigung «Xylon» aus. Überdies wurde er Mitglied der Künstlervereinigung «Tailles et Morsures» und «Der graphische Kreis». Marc Gonthier verstarb am 16. September 1954 unerwartet mit erst 59 Jahren.

Bibliography and sources

Last modification 06.06.2024

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