"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 18, 2013
Circus in the Eye
by Lawrence Jeppson

Several decades ago I thought seriously about writing a book about circus art. I began collecting materials and thinking about making a trip to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I had previously had an unpleasant encounter with one of the Ringling Museums in Florida.

Those files were among the many things I discarded prior to moving from Bethesda/Potomac, Maryland, to downtown Salt Lake City seven years ago. That hasn’t killed my latent curiosity about circus art, just my desire to do a whole book about it.

Some circus art is high-ended, created by the serious artists I usually write about in “Moments.” Some of it is folk art, sometimes primitive, sometimes quite expert. Some of it is advertising art, some is craft work.

The three most important parts are advertising posters, circus wagons, and handcrafted carousel figures. All of it is iconic. That is, circus art produces visual images, from the very rich to the tawdry.

I can’t remember when or where I saw my first circus. I grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and although it was the state capital, the population was only 3,000. (There were only 90,000 in the entire state.) Each summer a small-time wandering carnival would set up for a few days on the outskirts of town. I have a vague recollection of watching roustabouts putting up a tent but have no recollection of anything going on inside. I don’t recall seeing any animals or a circus parade.

These carnivals were mainly rides: octopus, tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars, merry-go-round, and a ride that did a full vertical circle, which put riders fully upside down. There was a sideshow and all the other little things that go with commercial carnivals. There was nothing artistic about any of that.

I’ve seen big-time three-ring circuses. Where? When? Can’t remember. I am sure that on least one occasion my wife and I took our children to see Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey in Washington, D.C. (probably at the Uline Arena), and I think I’ve seen a Paris circus.

The last circus I went to was in Copenhagen, Denmark, although I have since seen a production on the New York Stage similar to Cirque de Soleil, which fundamentally is a fabulous acrobatic production, no tents, sideshows, or cotton candy.

On the high end, the most famous circus art may be two Post-Impressionist depictions by Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Very scientific in his approach to painting, he devised the technique known as Pointillism. The technique requires the precise juxtaposition of tiny dots of color which the eye would blend optically.

Georges Seurat, Parade de Cirque/Circus Sideshow, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Seurat spent two years painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. A century later this would inspire the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George. The painting itself is in the Art Institute of Chicago

Georges Seurat, The Circus, 1891, d’Orsay Museum, Paris. This was one of his last, completed shortly before his premature death at age 31.

The best place to see circus art is at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The museum owns 215 circus wagons, which must be the largest collection anywhere. Thirteen of them, including eight mobile animal cages, date from the 1800s to the early 1900s. The museum was a prime resource for the novel and then the 2011 movie Water for Elephants, which starred Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison.

An 1882 American trade card shows an Indian rhino in a cart cage being drawn by a team of eight horses. The art is crude, probably done by someone with little training.

Posters were apt to exaggerate. This elephant would be even bigger than the one mounted in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., which happens to be the largest specimen ever taken.

You would expect the Germans to have a dancing bear.

This 1914 poster sings a more exotic tune.

The polar bears don’t just dance. They can teeter-totter. The bear anatomy isn’t very good.

A different circus. “Leap year ladies of laughter.” “The only clown women who wear the comic crown.” “See the new woman in a novel sphere.”

You gotta see this show!

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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