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BLOG | February 26 2021

Carnival Representations in Art

Colour, fun, and creative expression! Carnival is an amazing time of year that we look forward to enjoying this time next year.

While this year we cannot celebrate as normal, it is enjoyable to reflect on the usual celebrations we get to enjoy at this time of year! And to know that they will come again.

February marks the start of carnival season! Carnival is the festive time that comes before Lent in Western Christian tradition. It is the coming together of people to celebrate before the season of austerity. It is also a reversal ritual, in which social roles are reversed and norms about desired behavior are suspended. Carnival is celebrated in many various ways across the world. Some of the best known include the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and the one in Venice. There is also an amazing carnival in Trinidad and Tobago that started as a rebellion against slavery but has transformed into one of the biggest street parties in the Caribbean. Be inspired for the coming years… what carnival would you most like to visit?

Below are 3 famous depictions of carnival from the world of art.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

This classic painting shows the battle between free abandon and austerity. The left-hand side shows the carnival, where there is an inn, livestock, and indulgent loaves of bread. There are people drinking beer and we can even find a sleeping drunk. No one pays any attention to the group of crippled beggars. In contrast on the right-hand side, we have the church, fish, pretzels, and modest flatbreads. People willingly give alms to the poor and sick.

The Harlequin’s Carnival – Joan Miró

Joan Miró, The Harlequin's Carnival, 1924-25, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo - Five Takes on Carnival in Art
Joan Miró, The Harlequin’s Carnival, 1924-25, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA.

This is probably one of Miró’s most famous paintings. It is also one of his first surrealist ones after the group coalesced around André Breton in 1924. The painting pulsates with the joy of life, there is movement, music, and fun. And yet the Harlequin looks desolate (if you struggle to find him, he is the elongated guitar with red/blue round head). Some attribute this to the hole in his stomach, alluding to the fact that at that time Miró often struggled financially and went hungry. This however does not distract everyone else from having fun. Just looking at the painting you want to sway to the music.

Dressing for the Carnival – Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer, Dressing_for_the_Carnival, 1877, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Winslow Homer, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

Let’s move continents and also change the understanding of the carnival a bit. Winslow Homer painted this work in the final year of the Reconstruction when the federal troops withdrew from the South. We see the group here preparing for a Christmas-time festivity known in the South as Jonkonnu. The celebration originates from the culture of the British West Indies, the festival blended African and English traditions. Later it merged with the July 4th celebrations (hence the Stars and Stripes that one of the kids is holding). Here we see two women dressing the Lord of Misrule, a very Harlequin-like figure. Both are focused on sewing him into his costume, the children watch with awe.

The painting is far from the liberated joy of Miró’s carnival. Instead, there is silence and focus, a sense of an important celebration coming up. But also poverty and the feeling that the hopes of emancipation are still far from the realities of black life in the South.

For further paintings depicting carnival season, please see the full article on Daily Art Magazine here.

For further curious musing from the world of culture, wellness and business, please see our blog.