Seurat’s Circus Sideshow

February 17–May 29, 2017
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue

Parade de cirque by Georges Seurat (French, Paris 1859–1891 Paris) 1887–88, Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 59 in.

The Ringling Bros. announced in January that it will be closing its run of 146 years this May, a year after letting its elephants free.  As life itself gets more anomalous perhaps there is less of a need for big tent attractions.  Centered around Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Circus Sideshow, the roots of this carnival fascination will be explored in a thematic exhibition at The Met of more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, period posters and illustrated journals.   Seurat’s great work spurred interest in other artists in the late 19th century leaving behind many depictions of what we affectionately call in the parade of life.

The Met wonderfully describes Circus Sideshow, “Seurat took a raucous spectacle that depended on direct appeal, the banter of barkers and rousing music, jostling crowds, and makeshift structures, and he silenced the noise, rendered the staging taut and ordered, hieratic and symmetrical, exquisitely measured and classically calm. Enveloped by the hazy gloom of night, the players and public are presented with the solemnity of an ancient ritual.”

Like art, the circus represents many things to many people, but for artists, those sensitive souls, it was a double-edged attraction grasping both its fiction and truths.  Paul Bouissac says in his conclusion to Circus as Multinodal Discourse: Performance, Meaning, and Ritual, “The circus encapsulates all the challenges of human existence.  The fundamentally same game is refracted from act to act.  The odds follow a crescendo which eventually leads to a soft landing in the cradle of unanimity.  The circus provides us with a sense of fusion, risk, and triumph.”  Baudelaire famously referred to art as a gamble. Certainly, artists can relate to life up on the high wire.

This ancient ritual of entertainment is woven into the very essence of culture.  Cirque de Soleil seems to be the new standard measure.  The show must go on as they say.  This unique exhibition will surely provide in great measure an interesting look into the pageantry that has excited or in some way horrified generations for over a century.

Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques by Fernand Pelez, 1888, oil on canvas, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris

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