Laughter is not a reaction but a contribution. What can happen in twenty-four hours may outlast a century.

Of the seven court jesters whom Velázquez painted close-up portraits of, three were dwarfs, one was boss-eyed, and two were rigged out in absurd costumes. Only one looked relatively normal – Pablo from Valladolid.

Their job was to distract from time to time the Royal Court and those who carried the burden of ruling. For this the buffoons of course developed and used the talents of clowns. Yet the abnormalities of their own appearances also played an important role in the amusement they offered. They were grotesque freaks who demonstrated by contrast the finesse and nobility of those watching them. Their deformities confirmed the elegance and stature of their masters. Their masters and the children of their masters were Nature’s prodigies; they were Nature’s comic mistakes.

The buffoons themselves were well aware of this. They were Nature’s jokes and they took over the laughter. Jokes can joke back at the laughter they provoke, and then those laughing become the funny ones – all prodigious circus clowns play upon this seesaw.

The Spanish buffoon’s private joke was that what anyone looks like is a passing affair. Not an illusion, but something temporary, both for the prodigies and the mistakes! (Transience is a joke too: look at the way great comics take their exits.)”

John Berger, ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’



“These people belong to the poor. The poor can be seen in the street outside or in the countryside. Pictures of the poor inside the house, however, are reassuring. Here the painted poor smile as they offer what they have for sale. (They smile showing their teeth, which the rich in pictures never do.) They smile at the better-off – to ingratiate themselves, but also at the prospect of a sale or a job. Such pictures assert two things: that the poor are happy, and that the better-off are a source of hope for the world.”

John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’

On Picasso

Many of his paintings are jokes, either bitter or gay; but they are the jokes of a man who does not know what else to do except laugh, who improvises with fragments because he can find nothing else to build up.

John Berger, ‘Selected Essays’

The clown knows that life is cruel. The ancient jester’s motley coloured costume turned his usually melancholy expression into a joke. The clown is used to loss. Loss is his prologue.

John Berger, ‘Confabulations’