The Circus in Modern Art

November 2008

stJack B. Yeats “They Love Me” 1950 Oil on board Private collection, courtesy of Karen Reihill Fine Art, Dublin © Estate of Jack B. Yeats. DACS 2008

From its inception in the stadium of Olympia in ancient Greece and the Rome amphitheatres, the circus evolved into an international extravaganza, mesmerising audiences with acts of astounding skill and daring. These acts were continued by small troupes of performers travelling Europe in the Middle Ages, and by the early nineteenth century permanent circuses were established in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and the United States. Consequently, the origins of circus acts can be found in every civilisation, recorded for posterity in paintings, book illustrations and illuminated manuscripts. In avant-garde European art the circus became an established theme, connected to a wider subject area, that of the cabaret and café concerts. Artists such as Edouard Manet, Georges Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas depicted the subject with intense dynamism, setting the scene for further artistic developments in this area. In a sense, the circus performer became a metaphor for the artist, similarly at odds with modern society, as shown in paintings from Picasso’s Rose period and the expressively angular works of Georges Rouault. In addition to the emotional extremes provided by the performer, the structural arrangement of the circus ring, with ascending and descending acts, provided a challenging opportunity for the creation of radical perspectives to evoke a contemporary experience of spectatorship.

The circus offered a modern urban theme linked to the opening of new recreational facilities in Paris and other European cities, and this progressive commodification of leisure was of keen interest to Fernand Léger, particularly with regard to the machine aesthetic he developed to express the energy and advancement of contemporary experience. Cirque Médrano had opened in 1873, and its most eminent depiction was in Seurat’s final masterpiece, Le Cirque(1890-91), a work which greatly inspired Legér’s interest in this subject matter. On permanent display at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, is Léger’s The Great Parade (1954), a defining work in the artist’s oeuvre and the result of over one hundred preparatory studies. This mural-size canvas was conceived on a scale appropriate to mass viewing, a factor important both to its subject matter and Leger’s life-long quest to reach a wider public for his work. Effectively balancing the dynamic with the static, The Great Parade is an exuberant work featuring a series of interlocking figures - acrobats, clowns, dancers and riders - created with volumetric solidity and primary colours set within stark black contours. In adopting the circus as a theme, Legér referenced a popular Parisian artistic tradition, but the key impetus for his circus paintings were contemporary developments in the avant-garde, particularly in the concept of simultaneity and the presentation of multiple layers within the picture space.

The Singing ClowJack B. Yeats “The Singing Clown” 1928 Oil on canvas
Courtesy of The Model Arts and Niland Gallery,
Sligo © Estate of Jack B. Yeats. DACS 2008

The American circus was revolutionised by P.T. Barnum, and its influence brought about a considerable change in the character of the modern circus. Traditional acts were superseded by ambitious, acrobatic performances, requiring a greater number of performers, often aided by complex machinery. Alexander Calder’s interest in the circus began when he published illustrations featuring the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus for the National Police Gazette,as a result of his frequent visits. Calder was fascinated by the possibilities of motion and the mechanical potential of his chosen materials, and the circus was therefore a significant subject for him to explore, particularly in relation to the dynamic movement of bodies in space. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Alexander Calder: The Paris Years 1926-1933 (to 15 February 2009), is a highly focused exploration of the artist’s early years, featuring Cirque Calder (1926-31), arguably one of the greatest circus inspired works of the twentieth century. Here an array of jugglers, sword swallowers, clowns and animals were crafted from an assembly of cork, wire, wood, paper, string and cloth, and were each assigned a series of movements. This intricate, miniature cavalcade of performers, ingeniously operated by Calder himself, would entertain invited guests for two hours at a time with more than twenty acts. With performances in Paris and New York through the 1930s, Cirque Calder played a significant role in establishing the artist’s reputation amongst avant-garde circles of the time.

The painter Jack B. Yeats had an enduring preoccupation with the circus and travelling fairs of his native Ireland. Masquerade and Spectacle: The Circus and the Travelling Fair at Compton Verney, UK (to 14 December 2008), brings together paintings that reveal a world of fantasy and illusion, exploring Yeats’ unique interpretation of the spectacular. With their exhilarating use of paint, and often partly abstract in form, the works explore the psychological tensions of performance and the artistic process of expression itself. The exhibition features TheSinging Clown (1928), a portrait of the celebrated musician and clown Johnny Patterson, who joined a circus in America in 1876. On returning to Ireland in 1885 Patterson formed his own circus and, as part of his act, composed a song in reaction to the political situation, urging Loyalists and Nationalists to ease their differences. Sadly, in an unpredictable turn of events, audience hostility as a result of his sentiments resulted in Patterson’s untimely death, struck on the head with an iron bar. The Singing Clown is a potent example of Yeats’ expressive use of colour and paint application to reveal the personal motivations and emotions of the characters depicted. It epitomises the artist’s fascination with the clowns’ world of comedy, mystery and song, and the inherent loneliness and vulnerability of these solitary figures, often marginalised by conventional society.

In Russia Vladimir Lenin adorned the circus with a status equivalent to theatre, opera and ballet, and the Moscow Circus School was consequently established in 1927. When the State Circus began touring internationally in the 1950s, it elevated originality and skill to a new level of possibility. As a child Marc Chagall witnessed the mastery of itinerant acrobats in village fairs in Russia, and following his move to Paris regularly frequented the circus in order to sketch. Psychologically the circus offered Chagall a way of travelling to new horizons, resulting in the creation of an unearthly pictorial world filled with pathos and enchantment. The circus was a magical spectacle of hidden depths, and part of its fascination for Chagall lay in the disquieting melancholy of its transience. In his unmistakeable, gravity defying paintings Chagall audaciously avoids structure and perspective to create dream-like compositions, deploying an arrangement of flying motifs effortlessly levitating within the picture space. This is particularly well represented in two works from 1950 displayed at Tate, UK - The Dance and the Circusand The Blue Circus - studies for two large murals originally commissioned for the auditorium of Watergate Theatre in London, where the artist’s extraordinary use of luminous colour epitomises the intoxicating energy present at such events.

These highlights are only a sample of the plethora of modern masterpieces created utilising the circus as a subject matter. Part of the fascination with this form of entertainment lies in the twentieth-century concept of the ‘other’, and the idea that performers, stripped of their glittering façade had a darker, more mysterious inner life. The existence of the outsider has traditionally held great appeal for artistic endeavour, and the rejection of convention was significant in that the professional boundaries established by modern capitalism were not adhered to. It is therefore understandable that a travelling troupe of similarly minded individuals aligned with their own social structures, and free from the constraints that usually bind society, was a concept the modern artist had great affinity with. The artist similarly often travelled, seeking locations that had the potential to be viewed in terms of a new world far removed from the everyday. This ‘going away’ became the ultimate modern experience, rooted in contemporary assumptions about the avant-garde artists’ role as a discoverer of new modes of expression. In this way the circus became a site for the exotic, and its imagined scenarios created a powerful metaphor for twentieth-century artists, providing the impetus for new ideas to flourish as a result.