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American and European circus is the focus of RISD Museum's summer exhibition
Henri Matisse, The Nightmare of the White Elephant (Le Cauchemar de l'éléphant blanc), 1947. © Henri Matisse. Mary B. Jackson Fund. Courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.
PROVIDENCE, RI.- The spectacle of the American and European circus takes center stage this summer in Circus—a glimpse into the visual world of this phenomenon during the height of its popularity, 1850 to 1960. Approximately 40 circus-themed paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and posters by artists such as Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec delve into life under the big top and its wider connections to culture and society.

During its heyday, the circus was a site of extreme feats of human physicality and wondrous phenomena. The daring athleticism and grace of acrobats, trick riders, and trapeze artists were featured alongside the often strange and grotesque humor and antics of the clown troupe. Also on display were “human curiosities”—bearded ladies, conjoined twins, sword swallowers, and others—who found a kind of fame in sensationalized sideshows.

Although the circus created an illusory world unto itself, it was also deeply tied to the 19th- and 20th-century industrialization of the United States and Europe. Enabled by rapid technological advancements, such as an expanding railroad system, the circus to came to both large cities and small towns. At the same time, highlights such as menageries and ethnographic exhibitions broadened visitors’ exposure to cultures from around the world, thus shaping viewers’ knowledge while simultaneously reinforcing Western hegemony over colonized lands.

The circus presents human and animal bodies in their extremes, juxtaposing grace, strength, and elegance with the wonderous and grotesque. These characteristics extend to the visual culture of the circus, from ephemeral advertisements designed by now-unknown artists to monumental canvases executed by critically acclaimed painters. The artists whose works are featured in this exhibition delve into both the imagery of the circus and its wider cultural connections, exploring popular entertainment as subject matter and a times using it as a tool for cultural critique.

The first modern circus was performed in London in 1768 at Philip Astley’s equestrian school, with the first American incarnation debuting in 1774 in Newport, Rhode Island, with Christopher H. Gardner’s performance of equestrian acts. Between 1850 and 1950, the circus grew to include animal acts, acrobats, and the sideshow, giving rise in the U.S. to Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” and the Ringling Brothers Circus, Zirkus Sarrasani and Zirkus Hagenbeck in Germany, the Cirque Fernando (later Medrano) and the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, and dozens of smaller troupes throughout Europe and the United States.





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