Circus in 20th century art on display

Friday, November 23, 2001

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Many people who ran away to join the circus had an artistic bent, a creative urge, a desire to do something out of the ordinary. Those who did left behind the normal daily rigors for new and different ones.

"The circus is its own social institution," says Donna Gustafson, director of the Hunterdon Museum of Art in Clinton, N.J., and guest curator of an exhibit of circus art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

"Images From the World Between: The Circus in Twentieth Century American Art" runs at the museum through Jan. 6.

"It's both a microcosm of society and an alternate reality," Gustafson says. "It's not theater or real life, but something in between. It's really a fascinating institution."

The number of works Gustafson has collected in which this element of popular culture is transformed into high art suggests that artists over the past century have thought the same thing.

The more than 90 works by some of the major artists of the 20th century include paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos. They form a "mini history of American art," according to Betsy Kornhauser, deputy director and chief curator of the Atheneum.

The oil paintings of Walt Kuhn immortalize acrobats and clowns and other circus performers. Black-and-white photographs by Weegee caught the sad, familiar painted face of Emmett Kelly for eternity. Photos by Walker Evans, Lisette Model and Kimberly Gremillion freeze other aspects of the circus. The 1971 video "Clown Face," by Charles and Ray Eames, shows clowns in the process of getting made up.

The mug of one famous showman is captured in the acrylic painting "Phineas T. Barnum," by Joe Coleman. The painting includes material from clown costumes attached to a frame painted with images of the "freaks of nature" that made the circus king rich.

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