The Circus in 20th-Century American Art

Article excerpt

The colorful life of the Big Top long has attracted artists.

DESCRIBED BY German literary critic Heinz Politzer as "a world between," the circus is a subject that for many artists has been filled with metaphoric possibility, formal experimentation, and exotic allure. Much more than popular entertainment, the circus is for many a dazzling alternative to everyday life--a spectacle of man's tragic failings, as seen in the buffoonish performances of the clowns, and a vision of his rich potential, symbolized by the daring and skill of the aerialists.

The first circus in America was established by John Bill Ricketts in 1792 in Philadelphia with a program that included acrobatic and aerialist performers, equestrian displays, and clowns. Ricketts toured his circus to other cities along the Eastern Seaboard and into Canada, setting a precedent for mobility that would be followed by nearly all subsequent American circuses. By the mid 19th century, the components that made up the modern circus--a traveling troupe of acrobats, clowns, riders, exotic animals, biological oddities, and wild animal acts--had been set.

As the nation expanded westward, so did the circus. By 1900, large and small circuses traveling by railroad, horse-drawn wagon, and barge were crisscrossing the length and breadth of the U.S., providing entertainment for a wide variety of patrons. The American circus evolved with society at large, expanding the European-derived single ring to the three-ring version; incorporating cars and bicycles in the acrobatic and clown acts; using trains and motorized vehicles to haul the circus from town to town; and, especially during the Golden Age of the Circus (1890-1930), employing contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky, designers like Norman Bel Geddes, and international circus stars to update and improve performances continually.

While the circus had been recognized in late-19th-century Europe as a subject of avant-garde art, in the U. …