SARASOTA — The circus is coming to town!
Back in the days before instant gratification ruled our lives, people across America felt a sense of anticipation build over weeks as the extravagant road show neared their city. The event was trumpeted by the most direct and effective form of communication (and advertising) at the time: big color posters promising the thrills of a lifetime that were plastered on any available wall.
A collection of those posters at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art takes us back to the era when circuses were the premier form of populist entertainment, bringing exotic sights and experiences from around the world to people who might have never ventured past their own city limits.
The 80 on view are culled from the permanent collections of the Ringling Museum and the Cincinnati Art Museum and were created between the mid 19th and 20th centuries by the Strobridge Lithographing Co.
"The Amazing American Circus Poster" isn't fine art, but it's a jolly good show with a dose of gravitas, measuring tastes and values through seven decades. They remind us that 100 years ago, elephants and tigers were unknown in some parts of the country and no one considered the exhibition of a "Chinese dwarf" or "girl with four legs" exploitative. All were mysterious marvels.
The posters were like movie trailers teasing out elements that would be considered the most compelling draws. So we see both individual performers and scenic views that emphasize the scope of a circus.
The Strobridge Lithographing Co. was the premier maker of posters for circuses. The invention of a mechanized printer that mass-produced color lithographs revolutionized advertising, and Strobridge specialized in innovative graphic design that was especially effective for circus posters.
But many of the earliest posters were dominated by florid prose rather than compelling images. Barnum and Bailey, for example, guaranteed among many other things on one from 1889 a "Truthful, Moral and Instructive" presentation that included a "Real Wild Moorish Caravan, Museum of Marvelous Wonders and 40 Supernatural Illusions, honorably conducted and honestly presented." Partners P.T. Barnum and J.A. Bailey and others such as the Ringling Brothers would use their own portraits on some of the posters because they found that promoting themselves along with their performers gave their circuses more cachet and created a sense of trust in the public in linking their names with a quality production.
There was, to be sure, overstatement and exaggeration. Some of the ads would be considered fraululent by today's standards. (An airborne Jules Vernish contraption?) In a less skeptical age, they went unrecognized or unremarked by customers for whom so much was new and who wanted to believe in the posters' promises.
One of the most effective marketing strategies was to highlight one of the stars of the show. Circus owners scoured the globe for unique acts. Strobridge excelled at creating a sense of drama around them. Many became celebrities, such as Lillian Leitzel, or "Dainty Miss Leitzel," a petite brunet who was billed as the "world's most marvelous gymnast," and Ernest Clark, acclaimed for his triple-twist somersault. A marvelous Strobridge poster shows him in midair, about to be caught by his brother Charles, the twists drawn behind him in dashed lines. The background shows a triple tier of boxes in an auditorium packed with onlookers and the ringmaster far below watching a setting that provides both scale and context.
Clowns became a staple of the circus by the mid 1800s as it evolved into a source of family entertainment. Their image, as painted by Strobridge artists, also evolved into the now-classic clown in whiteface with a red nose. One of the best featuring a clown is from 1908 by Edward Henry Potthast, a well-known American impressionist painter who earned his living as an illustrator before his success as a fine artist. The poster's only copy is "The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth" in large letters and just three figures, a clown and a pretty young woman balancing on a horse. Potthast conveys the difficulty of the equestrian act by tilting horse and rider a bit; they swish past a clown looking at the woman with an expression we can interpret either as a naughty peek up her skirt or as astonishment for her agility. The colors and style suggest the influence of Potthast's visits to Belle Époque France.
These posters present the essence of the circus, its panoply, spectacle and, yes, hype. They illustrate both the immense centrality of the circus in people's lives and the guileless embrace they could bring with them to the big top. I'm not fond of nostalgia; its purpose seems to be sowing discontent with the present by misrepresenting the past. So I won't attach that label to this show. But I leave my 21st century pretensions at the gallery door in enjoying these posters and hope you will, too. They make me believe in the magic and wonder the circus could invoke every bit as much as an earlier generation believed, too.
Step right up!
Also new at the Ringling is an interactive wing in the Tibbals Learning Center. It simulates a three-ring circus and has interactive displays that spotlight some great circus stars of the past. Make sure you also visit the fabulous, sprawling scale model of a circa 1940s circus made by Howard Tibbals while you're there.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.