One of six circus paintings executed in February 1933, Le cirque depicts a recurrent subject in Picasso's oeuvre (A. Barr, Picasso, Fifty Years of His Art, New York, 1966, p. 184.). The present work has also been known as Le cirque medrano. Located within the district of Montmartre, the Cirque Medrano inspired artists such as Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, and Picasso, with spectacles of acrobats and clowns performing in the arena. In the present painting Picasso reconceived the popular subject by depicting it the curvilinear style of his 1932 paintings of bathers on the beach as well as portraits of his young mistress Marie-Thrse Walter. In Le cirque, Picasso depicted the circus from a bird's eye viewpoint, where one beholds three acrobats performing feats in the center of the composition while the audience, with their upturned faces, watch with rapt attention. The focus on the performers is further emphasized by the white spotlight illuminating them from a corner.
Strongly outlined and filled with rich jewel-like tones, Le cirque's composition resembles the tracery and colors of medieval stain glass. Furthermore, organic forms of the figures as well as the swirls of color are devoid of any rigid or straight lines; their shapes are fluid, and seem to literally multiply on the canvas. Yet, Le cirque possesses a centrifugal force that keeps the three performers in a tight coil, adding visual tension.
The incongruous space, the distortions of the bodies, as well as the visual puns of the stars and faces of the audience indicate the influence of Surrealism. Picasso was acquainted with Andr Breton and other Surrealists living and working in Paris. They emphasized the presence of biomorphic shapes like those made by Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy. The Surrealists embraced Picasso's work during his Cubist years; they even reproduced his paintings and sculptures in their journal La Rvolution Surrealiste. Roland Penrose has explained, "In the work of Picasso they stressed its influence at the expense of aesthetic consideration. 'Picasso, they claimed, is Surrealist in Cubism'" (R. Penrose, Picasso, His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 249).
Le cirque is a particularly strong visual metaphor for Picasso, who not only made dazzling leaps over the gap separating art and life, but who increasingly, in his oeuvre, assumed the role of the spectator of life's events and dramas. The circus, theater and bullring---all are spaces used by the artist in which the dramatic event parallels the thrilling moment when the viewer looks upon the work of art.