CARAVAN Sander's 'Circus Artists.'
To run away with the circus — it’s a glamorous metaphor for “leaving a dull life for a colorful one,” as the wise gurus at wikihow, whom I turn to for all my life advice, inform me. It speaks of merry tricksters and rule-defiers, people who might just as well seduce you as rip you off. To say it is to dream of liberation, to dream of escaping into a world of brighter lights and darker shadows and a friendlier embrace of kinks and freaks.
I was thinking of these things when visiting “Circus,” at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit St, Providence, through February 22), a small, but rich, two-room exhibition of century-old advertising posters and fine art paintings and prints of the spectacle, organized by Alison Chang.
I kept thinking about the “colorful” part. An 1895 color poster for Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” advertises its “Great Ethnological Congress,” showcasing lions, camels, giraffes, bears, and hyenas alongside Pacific islanders, whirling dervishes, Russian Cossack stomping, drumming Africans, and dancing Native Americans in feathered headdresses.
Race and ethnicity were among the featured entertainments of the circus — and still are. The Western circus has long been, by turns, a spectacle of United Nations multiculturalism and an orgy of Western colonial ogling that enforces racial stereotypes — see exotic, primitive specimens of critters and people from around the world!
Artists were entranced by the circus’ mingling of races and its fantasies of other ways of living. August Sander photographs a group of white and black performers sitting next to a circus caravan in 1926; Max Beckmann’s 1922 circus etching shows a woman dancing to the music of black musicians; in 1910, Max Pechstein depicts black women doing a Somali dance to drums and pipes.
“Like many other German artists of his time,” a sign explains, “Pechstein embraced African and other non-European art as an uncorrupted and more authentic antidote to the stultified refinement of German society.”
The circus was also one more antidote to the starched academic realism of painters like French artist James Tissot, represented here by his canvas of women in crowns riding chariots before a crowd of men in top hats and women in gowns inside Paris’s modern Hippodrome de l’Alma, all glass and steel illuminated by electric lights. Tissot impresses with his verisimilitude, but these “amazones” seem stiff and posed. He painted this in 1885 as the French Impressionists were scurrying across hayfields to break the old realist rules and bring back visions of the countryside in accumulations of short, dashed brushstrokes.