Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso; Marcel Dzama: Child of Midnight review – let the revels begin

A big, joyous Brueghel opens this riveting show at Kettle’s Yard on carnivals all the way from 16th-century Flanders to the present-day Caribbean. It’s all dancing, drinking, brawling and leering, viewed from a vantage point high above a village. Lovers grapple, drinkers swear eternal friendship, pie-eaters compete, chains of dancers flail to the tunes of windy bagpipes before collapsing in a heap. It is the ultimate free-for-all.

Or is it? Brueghel’s painting presents two questions for the viewer. One is pictorial and relates to the conundrum of representing huge crowds without any loss of individuality. The other concerns the strict social rules. Carnival, as it is known, originated in ancient Egypt as a pagan rite, but weaves through Catholic Europe via the Feast of Fools, the Venetian carnival, the French masked ball and so on. All these rituals are depicted in this show.

So here is Albrecht Dürer’s exceedingly strange torch dance, where three women and three men, faces disguised in black nets, move as artificially as chess pieces on a checkerboard floor in the frozen precision of a woodcut. And Joos de Momper’s watercolour of a Carnival Scene, Representing January, with ceremonial stilt-walkers, false beards and noses, c.1600.

The great Jacques Callot, better known for his devastating etchings of war, also produced a superb book of prints showing pairs of Venetian street performers operating in masks, from Scapino to Scaramouche, the parts as labelled and defined as any Christmas play in The Archers.

These traditions were all imposed on Caribbean populations by western colonisers down the centuries, from colossal feather headdresses to gold and scarlet masks. The religious procession becomes the carnival of floats; the ball becomes the dance.

This is both foreground and background to the work of three contemporary Caribbean artists: the venerable Paul Dash, Errol Lloyd and John Lyons. Their images of carnival are paired with old art throughout to startling effect.

Dash, born in Barbados in 1946, was one of the stars of Tate Britain’s tremendous recent Life Between Islands show, a portrait of Caribbean-British art since the 50s. He makes exquisite crosshatched drawings of carnival figures. Some are moving about in the dark, others building floats or simply gathering, circling, multitudes of revellers whose faces are not distinguished: the dance, not the dancers.

An etching here, Masked Stick-lick Fighters Parade, however, shows a more disturbing group in ruffs and pointed hats, brandishing the sticks used in traditional Bajan martial arts. You might think of Pierrots or dunces; but also of the Ku Klux Klan.

A very delicate image of a swaying crowd, clouds of pale colour pinned down by Dash’s line, is displayed directly opposite a Renaissance drawing of carnival dancers. They are painstakingly represented, one by one, in a clumsy and angular chain – far less seductive, or persuasive, than Dash’s own fine ink drawing.

A section on weird critters – the lyrebird, the vulture, the pygmy owl, as depicted by European artists from Picasso to Ceri Richards – leads to the lucid carnival watercolours of Errol Lloyd (born in Jamaica, 1943). He notices all kinds of connections: the way that owls signify witches and bewitchings in the culture of two continents; the way the headdresses of girls in Notting Hill resemble the feathers of elaborate Aztec and Olmec costumes.

If it were not for the Caribbean community we would scarcely have any trace of carnival in Britain, and Lloyd’s series of high-chrome oil paintings records its evolving history from 1988 to 2001.

This is a suitably wild anthology, running all the way from the potent canvases of devils and divines in his native Trinidad painted by John Lyons (b.1933) – alongside surprising parallels in the thorn-crowned crucifixions of Graham Sutherland – to works by Barbara Hepworth and Francisco de Goya. One of Goya’s Caprichos, in its glass case, shows a hugger-mugger riot of mad figures – cats, witches, a demonic, bat-winged tormentor – that have their closest association here in Lyons’s expressionist painting of a Jab Molassie (molasses devil) rearing up in a carnival parade that speaks straight back through time to the Spanish Inquisition.

At times the connections are tenuous. A beautiful Helen Frankenthaler watercolour has no obvious relationship to the subject except for the joie de vivre of its organic abstraction. And I’m not sure that William Congdon’s painting of a vulture – the bird of prey seen as a tragic and lonely hump of silver-grey scribbled into a thick impasto of darkness – would have a place here if not for its feathers. But Congdon is a revelation; the American abstract expressionist who got away.

This is a show rich in knowledge as well as images, but perhaps most fascinating in its juxtapositions of continents and centuries. It is not immediately obvious which of the two – Lyons or the English artist David Bomberg – painted the scene of carnival lights flaring up the canvas in purely abstract striations, and which painted the brilliantly coloured verticals of a midnight carnival. The abstraction was by Bomberg, way back in 1935.

For the true carnival cliche, look no further than the new paintings of Canadian polymathic artist Marcel Dzama. Dzama (rhymes with llama) is perhaps more famous for his puppets, stage designs, zany films and collaborations with Spike Jonze, Bob Dylan and the New York City Ballet. At David Zwirner, however, he is showing giant watercolours of supermoons with smiling faces, blue and gold fish playing with deep-sea divers in Venetian carnival masks; twisting tin chess pieces in harlequin stripes.

A monkey in a fez clashes the cymbals; carnival cats take a drag on elegant cigarettes; crews of masked gondoliers turn up on the shores of desert islands. There is an atmosphere of cocktail-hour jazz and old movies, of masked balls and louche liaisons, with overtones of surrealism and illuminated manuscripts.

Dzama is great at the one-night-only aspect of carnivals. Every scene looks about to brim over into chaos, or simply vanish in thin air. But there are climate crisis undertones to this show. That moon is too bright, those shores are too high, those seahorses too large, to the point of sinister. It gives an edge to paintings that might otherwise appear too luxuriously gorgeous and perhaps – like the Venetian version of carnival – occasionally kitsch and even twee.

Star ratings (out of five)
Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso
Marcel Dzama: Child of Midnight ★★★

Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 19 February

Marcel Dzama: Child of Midnight is at David Zwirner, London W1 until 22 December