NEW YORK, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Circus and art were made for each other, but artists didn't become aware of it until the French Impressionists began to paint circus performances and performers at Paris' Cirque Medrano in the late 19th century.
The popularity of the circus as inspiration for art really took hold in the United States in the 20th century and continues to this day. An exhibition documenting this marriage of performance and art has been organized by the American Federation of Arts and is on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum through Jan. 6, when it will move on to Sarasota, Fla., and Austin, Texas.
The visit of the show, "The Circus in 20th Century American Art," to Hartford provided the Wadsworth Atheneum the opportunity to mount a pendant show recalling its former director A. Everett Austin's lifelong fascination with the circus, culminating with his creation in 1948 of the Museum of the American Circus at the art museum in Sarasota that houses a collection begun by circus tycoon John Ringling and his wife Mable.
The main event includes more than 100 paintings sculpture, drawings, prints, video and photography by artists ranging from Alexander Calder and Walt Kuhn to Weegee and George Segal, drawn from museum collections across the nation. It is the first exhibition devoted to the subject since "Chick" Austin, as he was known, mounted one covering carnivals and circuses nearly 50 years ago.
The Ashcan School of realist artists in New York at the turn of the last century was the first to focus on show business, including circus, as subject matter. Examples of their work in the show include "Clown Making Up," a 1910 scene in oil illuminated by candlelight by John Sloan, and Everitt Shinn's "The Tightrope Walker," a tensely dramatic canvas dated 1924.
Clowns were a favorite subject for these artists, as can be attested by paintings of them by George Luks and another by Shinn, and later works by Paul Outerbridge Jr., and Paul Sample, and a Weegee photograph of Emmett Kelly, the most famous modern American clown, dated 1945.
But it was Walt Kuhn who virtually made a specialty of his sympathetic paintings of clowns that catch their humanity no matter how thick their greasepaint.
Kuhn, a popular modernist artist in the decades just before World War II, is represented by two of his greatest oils, "The White Clown," a powerful full length depiction of a well-muscled, somber young clown in white body suit, and "The Blue Clown," a moody portrait of a mature performer in a blue and gold costume. Also on view is his appealing "Acrobat in Green" and a portrait of a performer in a lancer's costume.
No artist was more attracted to the circus than sculptor Alexander Calder, whose witty wire, cork, and cloth model of a typical one-ring European circus he saw in Paris, titled "Cirque Calder," is one of the New York Whitney Museum's proudest possessions.
A 1961 video of this model with Calder animating it is on view. A 1926 gouache painting by Calder of bareback riders and tightrope artists, clowns, animal acts, and a circus band is a depiction of the three-ring circus, an American innovation pioneered by Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey more than a century ago.
The 1930s was a particularly fecund era for circus art. John Stuart Curry traveled with Ringling Brothers for three months in 1932 and his paintings of the famous aerialists, The Flying Codonas, and of Baby Ruth, a circus sideshow fat lady, are on display. Reginald Marsh, the painter of the common man, immortalized another team of aerialists, The Flying Concellos, and painted the circus and its attractions at Brooklyn's Coney Island.
There was a fall-off of interest in the circus after World War II with the introduction of television and other forms of amusement, but in the past 25 years Ringling and other old-line touring circuses have been challenged by popular artistic spectaculars such as the Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora and others, and a new generation of artists have been turned onto the circus as well.
George Segal has used circus performers as models for his famous life-size figures in plaster, such as the figure of the trapeze artist soaring high that is included in the show. Bruce Nauman took a dark view of clowns' essential nature in his 1987 video piece, "Clown Torture (Dark and Stormy Night With Laugher)," depicting a clown applying his makeup to mask his cruel countenance.
Polly Apfelbaum has hung three worn clown costumes on hangars against a wall, a mute tribute to the entertainers who have worn them, and Joe Coleman portrays Phineas T. Barnum, the pioneer circus impresario, in acrylic as part of his gallery of American historical figures. Rhona Bitner, who has been photographing the circus for a decade, is represented by a series of Ilfochromes mounted on aluminum, which she completed this year.
There are many fascinating photographs in the show including one of a circus trainer leading an elephant by Walker Evans, pictures of the Wallenda family, a famous high wire act, by Lisette Model, and a portrait of an albino sword swallower by Model's most famous pupil, Diane Arbus. Bruce Davidson's brilliant camera studies of clowns and dwarfs, dating from the late 1950s are a mini-show in themselves.
Rounding out the show are top circus paintings from the 1930s. Guy Pene du Bois is represented by a depiction of trapeze artists, Pavel Tchelitchew by his portrait of Pip and Flip, a Ringling side show duo billed as the "Pinheads from Peru," and Milton Avery's explosive "Chariot Race." Chaim Gross is represented by a monumental work in wood titled "Strong Woman" and a study in ebony of acrobat Lillian Leitzel, famed for her one-armed pivots in midair.
The accompanying "Chick" Austin exhibit includes costume designs and actual costumes by Tchelitchew for a circus-themes ball put on by Austin at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1936, a watercolor of saltimbanques (street performers) by Honore Daumier purchased by Austin for the Atheneum, and an oil by the American surrealist, Florine Stettheimer, titled "Beauty Contest, To the Memory of P.T. Barnum."
It was Stettheimer who designed the cellophane sets and costumes for the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts," which Austin staged at the Atheneum's theater in 1934 just prior to its unsuccessful Broadway premiere, now considered a landmark event in modern theater history.