When does something become art?
One answer is when a museum shows it. Thus, the current show at the Cincinnati Art Museum through July 20, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company, qualifies as art.
And I doubt few of the visitors to this exhibit will quarrel with this claim. There’s appeal on a number of levels. The work is populist in nature, spectacularly colorful with finely rendered and detailed imagery and features excellent examples of the labor-intensive lithography process. The exhibit tells fascinating stories and — since they date from 1879-1939 — it also sheds light on the way we once lived and entertained ourselves.
Also, since Strobridge was a Cincinnati-based printing company specializing in entertainment-related work, the show has local appeal. And because circus posters were posted (as their name implies) in public and vulnerable to the elements and wear-and-tear, a collection in as good a condition as this is rare.
The show is meticulously installed, too, organized into sections that highlight crowd-pleasing elements of the circus, such as clowns, animals, acrobats and athletes, “melodramas” and more. The museum even borrowed (from Wisconsin’s Circus World museum) a restored 1886-1888 Barnum & Bailey “pony float” — used in parades marking a circus’ arrival in town — carrying a gilded, 24-karat-gold Mother Goose figure.
Yet, this is the first time since the Cincinnati Art Museum acquired its collection of some 1,000 Strobridge posters in 1965 that any (save an exception or two) have been displayed. One key reason was that the museum didn’t regard it as art. (The show features 80 posters, drawn from both Cincinnati’s collection and those of the Ringling Museum of Art and private collector Howard Tibbals, based in Sarasota, Fla. His collection is promised to Ringling, which displays selections from it.)
According to Kristin Spangenberg, CAM’s curator of prints and the Strobridge show’s co-curator, the collection — from sample books of pristine posters — came to the museum because a Strobridge executive wanted to exempt them from a sale.
One can suspect the reasons for the museum’s initial reluctance: These are examples of commercial art, created by a business’ talented but (mostly) anonymous expert artisans to satisfy a client, rather than fine art borne out of an individual’s personal expression. Designs also weren’t produced as limited-edition series, which help establish an artwork’s value. But as art museums move into collecting industrial and commercial design, such concerns seem increasingly archaic. And this subject matter and the dramatic way it is depicted transcend those concerns.
Spangenberg, who came to CAM in 1971, says it wasn’t until Millard Rogers became director in 1974 that the posters were accessioned into the art collection. Rogers first suggested a circus poster show in 1975. Spangenberg started planning in earnest in 1998; Ringling Museum entered the picture in 2002.
A little background is needed to understand how big a deal the circus used to be in a pre-TV, pre-Internet era. In the late-19th/early-20th centuries, it was far bigger than the circus of today, more like a traveling Broadway show within an amusement park or even a World’s Fair.
The circuses also promoted its stars and went out of their way to find them, which is the subject of many of the posters. Those stars could be delightful, like “Evetta, the Only Lady Clown,” printed in 1895 for Barnum & Bailey.
Stars could also be “oddities.” An 1882 poster advertises Millie-Christine, “The Two-Headed Nightingale.” In reality, “she” was conjoined twins apparently sharing a spine, performing songs twice a day under the Big Top (rather than the sideshow, the usual place for “oddities” or “freaks”).
The stars could also be animals, like Barnum & Bailey’s “Charles 1st, the Marvelous Chimpanzee,” a 1910 poster depicting scenes of a talented chimp that could do it all: ride a bike wearing a blue cap and red sweater; wear a tux and smoke a cigar while playing cards with an equally well-dressed man; blow out a candle while wearing pajamas in bed.
This is as good a time as any to confess I’m not much of a circus fan. I find the cruel way circuses exploited animals and “oddities” upsetting, and I hope docents will prompt the show’s many younger (and older) visitors to ponder the ethics of circuses. The most egregious example here is “Gargantua the Great,” a 1938 four-sheet poster announcing the arrival of a “fiendishly ferocious brute” (according to wall text) to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. The 525-pound gorilla is depicted as a snarling, teeth-bared monster, holding up a frightened African native as it stares at us from a grassy plain. It’s the real King Kong, credited with saving the circus during the Great Depression years.
The reality, as the wall label explains, is that the captured gorilla — known as “Buddy” — was maimed by an acid-hurling sailor en route to the U.S., leaving a facial scar. Buddy was adopted by a woman who cared for sick animals in Brooklyn, until he grew so big she had to sell him to the circus. That’s when the Gargantua story was concocted.
Sometimes knowing the truth can take the pleasure out of something, like looking at a circus poster.
Cincinnati Art Museum’s THE AMAZING AMERICAN CIRCUS POSTER: THE STROBRIDGE LITHOGRAPHING COMPANY runs through July 20. For more information, visit www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.