See works of art by masters! See tightrope walkers, tents, elephants and tigers! See clowns laughing on the outside while crying on the inside! And hard-eyed aerial artists! And posters drenched in humbug! Experience, till you're sick of them, the Big Top's old cliche's!
"Center Ring: The Artist (Two Centuries of Circus Art)," which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, has been traveling the country for most of the past year. Its thesis is legitimate. Its art work is impressive. The exhibit has been edited, often rather ruthlessly, for display in this city. But one would not wish it larger. It is, as is the circus, a rich but repetitious, strangely melancholy show.
The ringmaster may yell that circuses are Thrilling! Traditional! Terrific! Circus buffs and children and artists may believe it. But artists, as is well known, are most peculiar folk.
The good ones, and the bad ones, too, are pushovers for clowns. Artists tend to like bright colors, dashing horses, eroticism, entertainment, men with bulging muscles, women with few clothes, grotesquerie, tradition and the fringes of society. They do not mind the sleaziness of circuses, the smells of fear and lion dung, the phony fun, the humbug. Nobody will leave this exhibition doubting that the circus world is tied in old and eerie ways to the world of art.
The artists represented are indeed impressive. They include Picasso, who frequently portrayed jugglers and jesters in bare and boundless landscapes; Paul Klee, who made his lines do tricks; Alexander Calder, who made circuses of wire; Edward Hopper, who enjoyed the look of circus tents; Georges Seurat and Marc Chagall; George Rouault, who loved (as do too many artists in this show) the tragedy of clowns; and Ferdinand Leger and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and George Luks, John Graham, Walt Kuhn.
Even Kenneth Noland, the Washington Color Painter, has a picture here. A brightly colored canvas from his "target" series of 1969, it has what seems to be a mouth, a nose, and two round eyes. It is titled "Clown."
Works by fine photographers are also on display. These include Diane Arbus' "Albino Sword Swallower" (1970), her "Tattooed Man" (from the same year), and August Sander's "Circus People," a superb group portrait made 40 years earlier. Mathew Brady's subjects include two circus ladies, one fat, the other bearded; Isaac Sprague, "The Living Skeleton," and Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins. These curiosities--and Anna Swan, a 7-foot, 11-inch giantess, and Tom Thumb, who was smaller--were among the attractions in the American Museum that P.T. Barnum opened before he hit the road.
Fire-eaters, freaks, saltimbanques and gleemen, mountebanks and mimes, have long been in show biz. The circus is not new. Dean Jensen, the art critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel who organized this show for the Milwaukee Art Museum, writes that in old Egypt circus folk "accompanied funeral processions to the doors of tombs." Also, young women who were acrobats and skillful with ferocious beasts leaped over bulls in Crete.
Jensen, who loves circuses, knows his circus history. The oldest image in his show, a William Hogarth engraving from 1733, shows England's Southwark Fair: "The daredevil descending the rope stretching from the church steeple to the ground is Cadman, who was to fall to his death in 1740 performing a similar stunt in Shrewsbury." Jensen also writes in the show's catalogue about England's Philip Astley, the man who taught his horse to run around in circles. Astley stood upon its back while it galloped 'round the ring of the first modern circus. (Astley's show was aided by a clown called Fortunelly, a strong man named Signor Colpi, and "a French lady whose golden tresses were so long they trailed several feet behind her when she walked.")
Circuses have always mixed the funny with the scary. The laughter that one hears underneath the big top is often spiced with screams. As a little boy, the late Duncan Phillips, who founded the Phillips Collection here, was taken from the circus in uncontrollable hysterics; he'd been frightened by a clown. Those ferocious growling lions do sometimes bite an arm off. And four members of Karl Wallenda's family were killed in circus falls; Mario, his son, was paralyzed for life after tumbling from a wire. Karl himself was killed when wind blew him from his tightrope in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978.
A monument to that daredevil is included in this show. Made by sculptor Steven Linn in 1979, it consists of a life-size hand-carved wooden bicycle balanced on a cable suspended wall-to-wall. A single slipper cast in memorial bronze lies below it on the ground.
Circuses in memory, or in anticipation, are often slightly better than they are in life. The audiences that Barnum promised to delight with seductive fresh-caught mermaids and authentic "English Druids" may have been disappointed. Also disappointed were those who went to see a circus that was advertised in 1841. Its poster is on view. The attractions that it lists include both the "horned horse" and "the rare, beautiful and lordly Camelopard." The horned horse is a gnu, the Camelopard a giraffe.
The best circuses of all may be those we visit in the imagination--Picasso's, for example, or the one Charles G. Finney wrote about so well in "The Circus of Dr. Lao" (1935). Circuses chock-full of lions, dogs and horses were then a dime a dozen, but Dr. Lao's included a unicorn, a gorgon, an hermaphroditic sphinx, and a creature that was either a Russian or a bear. Viewers were not sure.
Jensen's show includes many colored posters, carved sides from circus wagons, and painted wagon wheels--in all, more than 100 works of circus art. No sooner has it made its point than, as circuses are wont to do, it makes it once again. It closes June 6.