The American Circus Poster

April 18th, 2011  |  Published in On View

Out Of Kitsch and Into Dream:

“The Amazing American Circus Poster:  the Strobridge Lithographing Company” allows art to encompass life in a way that transforms both.  The show, beautifully and meticulously curated and installed, has an epic quality, as if the curator were pulling together props and sentiments for a big-budget fever-dream/movie showcasing tropes from a collective childhood.  The imagery is antique and somehow unsettling in its familiarity:  lusty-faced clowns and harlequins, butter-fly-winged trapeze artists, galloping stallions, seals with balls at the ends of their noses, freaks displaying their freakery in mid-air, etc. – all of it under the purview of puffy-cheeked, mustachioed capitalists, offering small-town folk a chance to witness glamour and exoticism for the price of a train-ride.

In other words, good old-fashioned “hype” is what this is all about.  But “hype” in the context of “The Amazing American Circus Poster” is aestheticized and fetishized into a grand, art-history narrative concerning how circus-owners used the innocent lithographic poster as a way to stir desires usually kept in the realm of the imagination and/or subconscious.  High Art’s Surrealism was evolving across the Atlantic at just about the same time many of these posters were created, and they share in its glossy, hyperbolic delirium.  This Low Art American Circus Surrealism, however, was pasted onto the facades and fences of American life, so the posters have both a strident vulgarity merged with storybook innocence.  In fact, “The Amazing American Circus Poster” is made up of over 80 of these posters created between 1878 and 1939, and you can tell each of them was lovingly selected by Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Kristen Spangenberg.  There’s a unique single-mindedness to this exhibit, from the raw-wood facades and black brackets holding the walls onto poles to the draped canvas doubling as movie-screens showing twitchy, early 20th Century footage of circuses coming to town and people being shot out of cannons.  You are privy to a lesson in the fine art and history of lithography and the Cincinnati-based Stobridge Company, one of its most accomplished practitioners.  An exhaustive chronology concerning the circus in America is posted.  And at the center of it all: a 24-karat-gold Mother Goose riding a pony-and-carriage (a float used in circus parades on loan from Wisconsin’s Circus World museum).

Spangenberg is credited with bringing the show to fruition after many years in which the posters languished, and her devotion to the worth of each piece, and to the concept of allowing the posters not just to be seen as historical documents but as aesthetic ones, allows the show a keen yet understated insight into what makes art Art.  One of the deepest pleasures of this show is witnessing the validation each poster receives as Art Museum Object without losing the context and meaning of its original purpose:  plain old low-end functionality.  The exhibit’s wall-text and catalog define this juxtaposition effortlessly, finding a way to turn advertisements into allegories and mass-marketing imagery into poetic cosmology.  The dichotomy of high/low is foregrounded, as well, via home-movie footage of old-time carnies slathering brick walls with paste and then throwing up multiple circus posters all over small towns across the United States.

What we are witnessing today as museum-worthy is historically defined as old-school pop-culture eye-candy meant to seduce people into spending money on fantasias they probably couldn’t afford but truly desired because of the artfulness of the sham:   animals in threatening poses inside cages, freaks being freaks, clowns doing the Watusi.  In other words, each poster finds its way out of its “trashy” past simply by being displayed without apology, and with a sense of seriousness as to what meanings it conjures.

That’s the triumph of a great museum exhibit in many ways:  taking what was once not valued and valuing it beyond its utility, creating a way to worship what was once thrown away.  This line of thought, of course, means that the museum evolves to include, not backtracks to correct, and art gets richer because we can get rid of suppositions and find ways to celebrate the ingenuity that produces “culture,” not eliminate what is not art.  Showing these circus posters in this way becomes a line of thought, and you start connecting dots you never even considered were worth connecting, finding new meanings, new constellations.

One of the most beautiful and artful of the posters is “The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth:  a Child’s Dream,” an 1896 lithograph that depicts a child in bed surrounded by a Bosch-like wreath of circus performers.  The poster dances toward nightmare, with clowns riding ostriches, bears with clown collars standing on one another’s shoulders, a monkey riding a harlequin in a makeshift rodeo, all printed in the rich, fermented colors of a Max Ernst painting.  Collage couldn’t do this:  there’s something both innocently disturbing and disturbingly innocent here, with a text banner at the bottom reading:  “This smiling face is multiplied a million times a year.  Whereas the children’s friend this wondrous show appears:  with sunny gleams of fairyland, with scenes of merriest glee, with cute and cunning animals for either side of the sea.”

The language is arcane, the imagery antique, but there’s a mysteriousness that transcends purpose, and gives this poster a nostalgic fervor “fine art” doesn’t usually muster.  It’s serendipity:  you the gallery-goer stumbling upon an accidental connection between circus and Surrealism, Barnum & Bailey and contemporary art (the “street art” of Banksey or Shepherd Fairey for instance) that tries to use the forms of advertising (text, printing, hyperbole) but can only come up with thematic irony at best, self-aggrandizement at worst.

The sincerity involved in trying to sell the dream to the child gives this poster its enigmatic power, and somehow allows this simple, humble poster a way out of kitsch and into dream.  It’s the same alchemy Joseph Cornell employed when building his shadow-box paeans to lonely glamorous hotels:  what is publically fashioned as luxury and thrill becomes a secret you keep in order to return to a paradise that really isn’t there, on Earth at least.  Cornell’s shadow-boxes, like many of the posters in “The Amazing American Circus Poster,” depict life as transient and full of moments you can only capture through fantasy, an encyclopedia of cotton-candy mysticism, seediness transcending into longing, and longing melting into trance.

Desire often fills in the gaps between what we construct as “high and low” in art – in other words, what is seen as “art” and what is seen as “not-art.”  Usually museum and gallery curators are the gatekeepers for this process, creating canons of meaning and meaning-makers, allowing certain art “in,” keeping other art “out.”  However, what “The Amazing American Circus Poster” show points out is that often what we throw out can be re-constructed and reinvented as what we need to keep.

Marcel Duchamp once wrote, “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone.  The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

“The Amazing American Circus Poster” is a scrapbook filled with grandeur, “Americana” and “folksiness” edited and curated into a fascinating medley not just about lithography or circuses or even American history, but mostly about what we as spectators in a museum bring to the works on display.  These posters still mirror desires and excitements that become renditions of what we often forget we need:  spectacle, absurdity, delight.


-Keith Banner


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