Ideas hung in the air of circus tent

The Baltimore Sun

"Nothing is as round as the circus," the French artist Fernand Leger observed in 1950. "It is an enormous bowl in which circular forms unroll. Nothing stops, everything is connected."

The same could be said of A Circus Family: Picasso to Leger, a whirling, swirling, merry-go-round of an exhibit that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

While the title may suggest a bright, breezy look at the glamour and spectacle of the circus, this show is actually a darker, more nuanced examination of the human condition by many of Europe's leading artists from the 1890s to 1950.

The circus performers on display can be seen as stand-ins for all sorts of creative types struggling to make their mark in society, including the artists who portrayed them. Like the circus, the artists' world at the time was an "enormous bowl" in which nothing stops, everything is connected and life itself could be a high-wire balancing act.

In this wide-ranging show, which opens under a large indoor circus tent, 94 works by masters such as Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec touch on nearly every facet of circus life, from gleeful to gloomy. Works from the BMA's Cone Collection are supplemented by objects from New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Goteborg Museum of Art in Sweden, among others. One highlight is a series of Pablo Picasso drawings and paintings that show the artist at a pivotal point in his career, just as he was beginning to attract the attention of American collectors such as Baltimore's Etta Cone.

The result is an exhibit that's very much like going to the circus, because it's as unpredictable as it is varied. One minute it's the festive occasion promoted in French posters; the next, it's a spooky underworld of glowering strongmen, eight-legged spiderwomen and giant bats swooping overhead. In the end, this show is not so much about the circus as the artists who were drawn to it, and the reactions they had along the way. There are as many different takes on the subject as there are artists in the show, and that makes it both enlightening and entertaining.

An underlying premise of the exhibit is that artists were not only contemporaries, but in many ways the visual counterparts of modern circus stars. Before movies and television, the circus was a popular form of entertainment, especially in Europe, and artists were attracted to the colorful, visual qualities of these nightly shows. Many artists also identified with circus performers because, like them, they lived on the fringe of society, in the seedier parts of town, and were forced to get by using their wits, skills and artistic talents.

The strength of the show, curated by Oliver Shell, the museum's associate curator of European painting and sculpture, is the thorough and engaging way it shows how artists used the circus as subject matter for their work and as a vehicle to explore themes they wanted to address.

In some cases, artists focused on the uplifting aspects of the live performances. Klee saw the circus as an oasis within the bleak industrial city, a playground for adults, and his 1937 mixed-media work on canvas, Traveling Circus, reflects the sense of energy and childlike wonder he experienced.

The heart of the exhibit is a series of exquisite drawings and paintings of circus performers by Picasso, who frequented Paris' Medrano Circus for inspiration in 1904 and 1905. The centerpiece is Picasso's The Acrobat Family, a watercolor from the Goteborg Museum that depicts a family in a private moment out of the limelight, complete with a domesticated monkey to one side. It's accompanied by a series of drawings that led up to it, from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Completed several years before Picasso began receiving acclaim for his abstract paintings, these works demonstrate his talent as a figurative artist. They're also notable for what they reveal about the Baltimore museum's holdings. The Acrobat Family was initially purchased by American collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein, who displayed it prominently in their Paris apartment. According to Shell, it was one of the first Picasso works purchased by Americans. One visitor who saw it was Etta Cone, one half of the legendary art-collecting Cone sisters from Baltimore and a friend of Gertrude Stein. Apparently intrigued by the painting, Cone subsequently bought many of Picasso's works from his "circus" period and later bequeathed them to the Baltimore Museum of Art, while the Goteborg museum acquired the Steins' painting. This is the first time they have been shown together in the U.S. and, in many respects, marks the genesis of Baltimore's Cone Collection, at least as far as its Picassos are concerned.

In Fernand Leger's geometrically driven view of the circus, what goes around really does come around. For others, it wasn't quite that simple. With this impressive overview, the BMA has opened its own window on a fascinating universe and the many ways artists have captured it.

'A Circus Family: Picasso to Leger'

Opens today and runs through May 17 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets are $4-$8; free to museum members and children younger than 6. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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