Move Over Bauhaus; Make Room For Bozo


Louis 13th, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Mid-Century Modern…

It is past time the firmament of classic design welcomes a long-neglected aesthetic.  I’m referring, of course, to The Creepy Sad Clown motif.

On a recent anthropological expedition (also known as my weekly shopping trip to the Goodwill Thrift Store), I was captivated by the pictured artwork.  This painting (well, actually a print executed on realistic looking CanvasEtte) brought me back to the days when such decorative touches were commonplace.  I couldn’t help but wonder why the style fell from grace.

Some of you are too young to remember when The Creepy Sad Clown aesthetic was at its peak in the 1950s through early 70s.  Famous Ringling Brothers clown Emmett Kelly can be credited for wiping away the funny man’s greasepaint mask to reveal the tortured pratfall artiste beneath.  The rest, as they say, is history.  All other sad clown portrayals grew out of his genius, and as homage (always pronounce this word with the Frenchie-Pierre silent “h” and accent on the second syllable) to his groundbreaking work.

Although clowns had always been considered somewhat scary, the realization that the guy with the squirting flower and size 25 shoes was a soul in torment served to tip the scales even more firmly toward the creepy.  A design movement was born.

During its heyday, clown paintings rendered on canvas (as well as the more elegant black velvet) were to be found gracing rumpus rooms across the depth and breadth of America.  For those who could not afford an original work of art, artistic prints were available in many fine design emporiums like Kresge’s, Ben Franklin, and the Woolworth’s.

This design was not limited to pictures – oh no.  The Creepy Sad Clown theme was executed in commemorative plates as well as limited edition, genuine porcelain figurines.  These were offered by studios such as The Bradford Exchange for 6 easy payments of only $29.99 each.  One could fill an entire curio cabinet!

The next, big thing.

What did this decorating style say about those who embraced it?  Perhaps that they, too, used smiling faces to hide the misery and angst of the human condition?  Or maybe they just liked how the bright colors went with their sofas.

Alas, The Creepy Sad Clown motif fell out of favor.  Instead of enjoying pride of place in fine homes, antique stores and art museums across America, these works of art are now chiefly found in thrift stores and church rummage sales.  They have been kicked to the curb for trash pickup day, much like their former owners are moldering in tombs and nursing homes.

Groundbreaking design like this, however, will never die.  Old becomes new again.  The time is ripe for renewed appreciation for The Creepy Sad Clown aesthetic.  All the signs indicate a resurgence for this classic design has already begun. *

Somewhere, Emmett Kelly is smiling.

(But you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that, because he has a sad expression painted on his face.)

*The discerning collector may soon find him or herself priced right out of the burgeoning market. I may be persuaded (for a modest fee) to part with this icon of vintage design as a service to one of my readers who is interested in starting his or her own collection.   How does $79.99 sound? (plus shipping and handling.)

About pegoleg

R-A-M-B-L-I-N-G-S, Ram...Blin!
This entry was posted in General Ramblings and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to Move Over Bauhaus; Make Room For Bozo

  1. bigsheepcommunications says:

    You know, the Creepy Sad Clown era may have led directly to the drug crazed 60s, with people gladly popping hallucinogens to escape those haunting images. I’ll pass on the artwork.


  2. Life is hard now for a lot of folks. I think there are some patrons out there who will definitely identify and view…but sadly, cannot buy. Now if you could reproduce one of those on a thimble, those thimble collections are hot.
    I am impressed with your French, explaining that the “h” is not pronounced.


    • pegoleg says:

      I never thought about those struggling with unemployment and poverty; how they could not afford to own such beauty. You make me ashamed.

      But that just makes it doubly important for such works to be acquired by art museums, so they can be enjoyed by the masses. Anybody got MOMA’s phone number?


      • Spectra says:

        – that number is 212-708-9400 (NYC)
        I think this is a fine place to initiate the campaign to preserve these gems of retro-fine-art. If Andy Warhols Cambels Soup Cans can “Occupy MOMA” with an entire wall on the 5th floor (I think) then certainly they have room for a wall (or a hallway) of Emmet Kellys.

        Join the crusade. OCCUPY MOMA, right here at Pego-legs Ramblings 😀


  3. Tori Nelson says:

    This painting irks my soul region, but I suppose that is the point 🙂


  4. joehoover says:

    That’s the creepiest clown I’ve ever seen. Why hasn’t he got clown hair? Why is he wearing a leather cap? It’s so wrong, evil, perverted clown.


  5. Lenore Diane says:

    Well now I feel guilty for thinking evil thoughts about the clowns of the world (past and present), especially as Smokey Robinson is serenading my mind with ‘Tears of Clown’.


  6. The first thing that popped into my mind is a haunting memory of my best friend when I was around 7. She had three sad clown pictures on her bedroom wall. It was very hard to sit there on her floor playing Tiddlywinks because their eyes would keep following me. Still gives me the creeps. So no, I think I’ll pass.


    • pegoleg says:

      You MAY be getting confused with the paintings of kids with big heads and even bigger, sad eyes, often dressed in harlequin outfits, that graced so many bedroom walls. Lots of people get the two confused.

      Sorry to bring back painful memories.


  7. billthepraiseandworshipguy says:

    These creepy clowns make me want to barf, Eliza! Think I’d better run and use the Louvre.


  8. All clowns, regardless of facial expression (real or painted-on) are creepy. All of them. Bar none. Even Ronald McDonald gives me the heebie-jeebies, a fact worsened when I went on a road trip for a marathon with Jack and he spent three hours in the med tent and we drove back with him doped up on Valium and exhaustion, only to stop at a McDonald’s where some old man was playing church tunes on a keyboard while an old lady sang next to an eerily empty Playland. It was surreal. Jack thought he’d hallucinated it.

    Anyway, clowns are bad. Paintings on velvet are bad, subject matter notwithstanding (my aunt had the Last Supper in that medium). Your blog is good. But now I’m mad at you for making me think about clowns.


    • pegoleg says:

      Reminds me of Dana Carvey doing his church-lady impression. “Clowns – bad! Peg-o-leg…good!” Sorry I took you there. Hope Jack has come down from the experience.


  9. It might be fun to see how many creepy clown prints could be crammed into a tiny car…


  10. Believe it or not my uncle’s name is Emmett Kelley (notice the EY) so not the clown. He collected many of these freaky faces…….i’d almost forgotten (except in nightmares)


    • pegoleg says:

      My grandfather’s name was Emmett. Not one you hear much anymore. But he wasn’t the clown either. Hmmmm. Sounds like all of us with a relative named Emmett maybe protest too much??


  11. Al says:

    Once again, Peg, you have used your unique standing as both a PhotoShop aficionado and artfully persuasive wordsmith to dupe us into thinking we need something that we don’t.

    But you’ve outdone yourself here. Based on some of the previous comments, it appears you have resurrected the fears and phobias of all these innocent folks, long since tucked away in their subconscious. You should feel a great sense of shame. I hope no one responds to this insidious method of enriching yourself.

    (I’ll give you $39.99, including shipping; that’s my first and final offer!)


  12. gojulesgo says:

    “… print executed on realistic looking CanvasEtte” hahahaha Oh Peg. You slay me.

    I think those clowns want to slay me, too. This post was a treasure in every way. Forget $79.99. It’s priceless.


  13. Dana says:

    Thank you, oh wise one, for bringing these sad clowns back into the spotlight as they so deserve. Hundreds of your blog readers are now curled up in the fetal position, rocking back and forth and trying to abolish long-buried traumatic memories, but it’s all good. As long as it’s for the sake of art, right?

    And a French lesson of my own: my sister was dating a man from Quebec, and he told her about watching the news one day– how a man in America had committed the most heinous of crimes. Word to wise Frenchmen: don’t use the word “heinous”. The chopping-off-of-the-‘h’-sound is not particularly endearing in this case. 🙂


    • pegoleg says:

      Ha ha ha! I could see where that word could raise a few eyebrows. Funny, my high school french teacher (a very earnest, young nun (back when they had nuns in schools)) never mentioned that particular pitfall of translations.

      Gotta say, I NEVER knew that clowns were supposed to be creepy until well into adulthood. I always thought they were funny. But then again, I was always a very literal child with no imagination.


  14. I never liked clowns–what are they hiding behind all that make-up and baggy clothing?


  15. elmediat says:

    Great post ! reminds me of Red Skeleton’s clown paintings. He did a series of celebrity portraits as clowns. You know the tradition of the unhappy clown or creepy clown is much older than the painting fad.. Consider: Punch & Judy, Commedia dell’Arte, the Opera, Pagliacci, Batman’s Joker based on the silent movie The Man Who Laughs, the silent film He Who Gets Slapped, and the great silent film comedians, Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin. There is something powerful in the contradiction of exaggerated happy faces (masks/make-up) that cover emotions of deep sadness or anger. Smile and the world smiles with you, run after them with a butcher knife and they don’t hang around too long. 🙂


  16. lexiemom says:

    I was going to “like” this post, but the truth is I don’t like it. Creepy clowns are…well…creepy…


  17. notquiteold says:

    When I was a little kid, I was very afraid of clowns. Now that I am mature…I am very afraid of clowns. But then again, I am afraid of quite of lot


  18. Paula's Paradise says:

    You are hereby awarded a big red plastic nose for your fine and funny work in classic art pratfalls and interior design drop-drawers. (Insert bicycle horn-honk sound and a suspender-snap here.)


    • pegoleg says:

      I’m honored – practically crying through my pancake makeup!

      My mom has one of those horns on her walker. I was visiting my parents last week and when we went to a restaurant, if somebody was blocking her access to the all-you-can-eat buffet, she’d give them a blast. People jumped a mile! It was good for grins, and every little kid around couldn’t resist giving the thing a try.


      • Paula's Paradise says:

        Sounds like you come by your wonderful sense of humor honestly — and have one cool Mom! You both blaze a trail of smiles …


  19. Barb says:

    I like the artwork. But then, I looked at a gallery of paintings on velvet last week, too…so unless you’ve got a copy of Hillbilly Hut Decor, I’m out of my league. I also like those skillion-dollar paintings made by monkeys and elephants. I don’t think you can put a price tag on weird. Great laughs on this post (if sad clowns could laugh).


  20. Angie Z. says:

    “Somewhere, Emmett Kelly is smiling. (But you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that, because he has a sad expression painted on his face.)” Hilarious! That Architectural Digest better be another one of your Photoshop jobbies or I am so moving out to a cabin in the wilderness to be rid of modernism forever.


  21. pattisj says:

    Aha! So YOU have my print! Hubbs said it was in the attic for safe keeping. I didn’t know it was YOUR attic.


  22. Mollie Morrissette says:

    Peg, a woman after my own heart.
    I have long held a burning desire to open a museum based on my collection of “treasures” I’ve discovered (but not had the nerve to buy with a straight face) at the Goodwill.
    Sure to bring screams of delight to any art critic, who will exlaim, as I have many times, “Holy sh*t!!” or “O. M. G!” or “OK, OK, hold it, NOW I have seen everything!” or the most frequently used, “OMG, just WHAT in TF is THAT?” or just plain, “Now THAT is an item that is just beggin to go into the Tacky Museum”.
    When it opens, I’ll be sure and send you an invite to the grand opening of Le Musee de Tacky.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s