'Visions of the Circus' celebrates life under the big top

Pete and Florence Mardo, Sparks Circus, 1923.
Pete and Florence Mardo, Sparks Circus, 1923.(Courtesy photo / Frederick W. Glasier)

Take a trip under the big top at McDaniel College starting Thursday, Aug. 24 as the exhibit Visions of the Circus rolls into town.

The exhibit, featuring historic photographs, artwork and memorabilia from circuses of the early 20th century, is part of the school's partnership with the George Washington School of Art and Design and the National Gallery.


In the past, the three institutions have teamed up to produce a look at the art of comic strips and of Caldecott-winning illustrated books. McDaniel professor Robert Lemieux said he pitched the idea for the circus exhibit based on his own fascination with the culture behind it.

"I was just intrigued by the circus, both the stories of the social impact during the first half of the 20th century, and the stories within about what it was like to be a performer or live in the circus," he said.


Lemieux said the era of the 1920s and '30s, when the circus was at its height of popularity, is endlessly fascinating, but as interest in attending the circus wanes in the 21st century, many are missing out on learning about this era of pop culture history.

"The show at one point was the largest entertainment form or industry in the world," Lemieux said. "It was pretty much all-encompassing in terms of performers or crew. They would travel from city to city to city, erecting a small city of canvas on the edge of a town for three or four days before moving onto the next."

The exhibit will be made up of archival photographs from the 1920s and '30s, oversized original banner and poster artwork up to 8 feet wide and 1 feet tall as well as objects from the circus like clown shoes and pitch cards, which were like baseball cards for the sideshow acts.

Lemieux said the idea is to overwhelm visitors with the sights and sounds of the circus, much like the overloaded stimulus of the big top of the era.

"The only thing we're missing is the smells," he said.

In addition to the pieces from the circus, Lemieux said they will also feature a number of original Alexander Calder illustrations on loan from the Whitney Museum that depict circus life.

Lemieux said the circus provided inspiration for a number of classic artists including Picasso and other artists of the 1800s and 1900s.

Lemieux said he was amazed by some of the photographs they unearthed for the show, including one of a man whose act was going down stairs on his head.

"How he maintained his balance and kept the strength up in his neck muscles, I'll never understand," Lemieux said. "I don't know how you wake up one day and decide to do it, or even practice that."

Lemieux said he hopes the exhibit opens people's eyes to the importance of the circus in pop culture history, and the interesting lives of those who would travel with it from town to town. Though he said he understands why it has grown less popular in recent decades, he said it's important to still look back at its role in history.

"I hope people have one of those 'wow' moments where they realize they didn't realize how significant and large and influential and instrumental this part of the entertainment industry was," Lemieux said.

"The circus was a part of your life pretty much every year. For many small towns, it was the event of the year. I hope we can have an appreciation for the history and the connection to culture even as we distance ourselves from that era."


If you go

What: Visions of the Circus

When: Exhibit on view Aug. 24 through Oct. 12; opening reception Aug. 31 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Where: Rice Gallery, Peterson Hall, McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster

Cost: Free

For more information: Call 410-857-2595.

Clown Lou Jacobs and performer Oscar Cristiani hold a big cigar Aug. 12, 1941, at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (Photo by Sverre O. Braathen/Courtesy Milner Library at Illinois State University)
Clown Lou Jacobs and performer Oscar Cristiani hold a big cigar Aug. 12, 1941, at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (Photo by Sverre O. Braathen/Courtesy Milner Library at Illinois State University)


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