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Music

The origin of David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ clown

@SamWKemp

Of all David Bowie’s costumes, the Blue Clown, used for the 1980 ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video, is by far the most unnerving. Evoking the gothic charms of German expressionist cinema, the video depicts Bowie dressed in pale face paint, a coned hat and stockings alongside several freaky-looking regulars of The Blitz club, who the glam icon had bumped into the night before the shoot. Fans have analysed the song and video to death, with many concluding that it was intended as a sequel to Bowie’s 1969 hit ‘Space Oddity’ and that the march of characters in front of a bulldozer symbolises the death of the singer’s previous alter-egos. The origin of the video’s most striking character is a little less well-known, however.

Clowns have been terrifying people for centuries. Many of them have their roots in Commedia Dell’Arte, a brand of renaissance theatre that originated in Italy and gained widespread popularity throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. Designer Natasha Korniloff based Bowie’s costume on the character of Pierrot, a diminutive of Pierre (Peter) or Pedrolino, a sad clown who is, despite his appearance, one of the most likeable stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte.

One of the earliest examples of Pierrot comes from the first production of Molière and Don Juan, or The Feast of the Stone, which was first performed in February 1660 at the Palais-Royal theatre in Paris. In the play, Pierrot is the name of a hard-done-by peasant who appears in the second act. The character’s popularity was such that he managed to survive the changing theatrical trends of the 18th and 19th centuries, finding new life in the canon of 20th-century classical music thanks to Arnold Schoenberg. The german serialist composer featured the character in his Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21, a setting of 21 texts from Albert Giraud’s poetry cycle. Schoenberg’s version of the sad clown made its debut in Berlin on the 16th of October, 1912, with Albertine Zehme in the role of Pierrot.

Both Pierrot and Schoenberg’s atonal compositions had a big impact on 20th-century popular music. Take Björk, for example, who sang Pierrot Lunaire during a one-off performance at the 1996 Verbier Festival. Pierrot made a lasting impact on Bowie too. Before he made his name, the musician studied mime and commedia dell’arte under the tutelage of dancer Lindsay Kemp, making his theatrical debut in 1967 at the Oxford New Theatre. The name of the production? Pierrot in Turquoise. He would later return to the role for the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video, in which he fulfils his role as the sorrowful jokester.

You can revisit Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ below.