Harlequins, Salimbanques, Clowns, and Fools

AT THE BEGINNING OF the Fifth Duino Elegy, Rilke asks a question about Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques that seems at first merely rhetorical, an effective way of introducing those reflections on the mystery of life with which the poem is concerned. “But tell me,” he asks, “who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves . . . ?” Through endless repetition in the literature on both the painter and the poet, the question has now become famous, almost as famous as the picture itself, the largest and most familiar of any in the Rose Period and probably of any in Picasso’s oeuvre before the Demoiselles d’Avignon.1 Yet it has never been asked seriously or literally enough. Who indeed are they, these saltimbanques? And who are their companions, the Harlequins, clowns, and fools, who figure in so many works of the Rose Period and those that precede and follow it? It

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