The Everyday Madness of Picasso’s “Acrobat on a Ball”

What a nimble feat of balance and strength it is to build a dream.

Pablo Picasso, “Acrobat on a Ball” (1905), oil on canvas, 147 x 95 cm, The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow (image via

One must be mad to believe that we can make the world better, that we can save humanity or even a single life. It is unreasonable, irrational. But I am for that madness.

—Elie Wiesel

PARIS — “[L]ong before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given.” This line from E.B. White’s poignant essay, “Ring of Time,” spotlights life backstage. Reflecting the behind-the-scenes depth and grace of the commonplace, Picasso’s “Acrobat on a Ball” (1905), at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (Picasso. Blue and Rose, September 18–January 6, 2019), does this, too.

Ironically, disparity can bring about unity. In “Acrobat on a Ball,” direct differences create direct relationships. Don’t just sit there, she suggests, do something. Don’t just do something, he offers, sit there. Both matter.

Moment by moment, we choose what to do and how to do it. How we balance those “whats” and “hows” to shape (or misshape) the core of our identity and the identities of those closest to us. Do we help bring the world together or do we build walls?

Picasso’s canvas celebrates this against that: female and male; youth and maturity; standing and seated; work and play; form and content; the sphere and the cube. The softly lit acrobat looks fragile, lithe, petite, and ephemeral. The harshly lit strongman looks firm, muscular, grand, and grounded. She is sky. Or water. He is earth, or rock. The acrobat’s toes never touch the ground; the man’s foot is solidly planted. He’s not goin’ anywhere; any minute she’s gonna nimbly hop off her private sphere. Stronger than the wall-falling, nursery-rhyme-wobbling, roly-poly Humpty Dumpty, she is, to quote P.T. Barnum, “cautious and bold.” And she won’t break. Neither will the bond between the two performers. They are family, community.

Looking at “Acrobat” during a re-read of my son Adam’s novel, We Can Save Us All (The Unnamed Press, 2018), published last month, and shortly after attending last month‘s opening reception in New York of two murals painted by my daughter Laini, I am moved by Picasso’s familial exchange. A wordless conversation excites his composition’s foreground. A similar exchange happens between the mother and daughter in White’s essay about the observation of a workaday challenge. When a cherished “other” is being observed, it’s especially satisfying. Routines of creative development are inspired by labor, love, and a striving for excellence. I have watched such actions unfold many times in the lives of my children and in the lives of countless others. It never gets old.

Soon enough the desolate setting of “Acrobat” will be deserted once again. But for now, the distant grazing horse fills the gap between Picasso’s two performers. The horse echoes their ease with each other and cements their bond. Right angles also draw the figures together. The man’s boxy physique and sharply angled leg mirror the acrobat’s balletic, blossoming arms and hands. The blue wave of his trunks, flowing into the cloth beneath, connect him to the cool colors of the girl’s body suit, just as the red bow or flower clipped to her hair connects her to the warm colors of the pensive, perceptive, protective man’s shirt and tights.

Crowds departed and tents dismantled. A circus family breathes the absences between performances. Smells of popcorn, lions, and sweat don’t fill the “middle-of-nowhere” air, where one artist nurtures her skills and the other gives his a rest. Except for the ball’s crunch of sand and a few barely heard barks, it’s a time of silence.

In “The Ring of Time,” White claims that one “has to catch the circus unawares to experience its full impact and share its gaudy dream.” It’s a dream that demands “improving a shining ten minutes in the diligent way all serious artists seize free moments to hone the blade of their talent and keep themselves trim,” like a painter drawing in a sketchbook.

Picasso’s 113-year-old painted acrobat and her Samsonian counterpart are as fit today as the day they were born. Both of these timeless, timely, heroic figures, and the mother and child in the background, embody unremarkable routines of lingering consequence. What a nimble feat of balance and strength it is to build an everyday dream that endures.

Where is the dignity and inner strength of Picasso’s strong girl or strong man in our current administration, the grace that White describes as “equilibrium under difficulties?”

The characters of “Acrobat” in their unity and diversity, reflect polarities that balance the off-kilter with the grounded. They embody the kind of glorious, everyday madness that might save us.

Picasso. Blue and Rose continues at the Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris) through January 6, 2019.

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