That’s Entertainment! At Królikarnia a compelling exhibition captures the intrigues of the circus…
By Krystyna Spark
Clowns, tightrope walkers, lion tamers and gymnasts – ever since its very conception, the circus has brought together the extraordinary, the unseen, the marvelous and the unconventional. Offering a form of entertainment that stands in stark contrast to the refined rule-regulated stage spectacles of the theater, the circus was a place where raw emotions found refuge – where within the circular border of the round circus ring human limitations were put to the test.
Fascinated by the freedom of this cultural phenomenon was not just its audience. Artists, searching for melting pots of extreme emotion, were keen to explore the duality of the circus, where amazement accompanied disbelief and admiration. CIRCUS, the exhibition at Królikarnia, portrays a variety of the resulting creative expressions. Leading the viewer through a hypothetical circus show, from entrée to intermezzo and backstage, visitors get a glimpse into the unbelievable – or rather, the unbearable.
The exhibition, just like a circus show, begins with the aforementioned entrée – the opening act. Here, visitors are presented with the history of the modern circus. Though elements of circus performances could be found already in ancient Rome, the event, as we know it today, was born around the middle of the eighteenth century.
Of course, central to the circus is the persona of the clown. Here too, he leads visitors from room to room with the most notable work being a series of clown portraits by Polish artist, Tymon Niesiołowski (1882 – 1965). Created in the late 1950s, the works feature the artist’s characteristic black outline, which in this case lends itself to the caricature-like quality of the depicted sitters.
With facial expressions ranging from boredom to fatigue, Niesiołowski’s clowns depict the contradictory nature of this character – whose “deliberate clumsiness exists to counterpoint the elegant beauty of the trick rider or the athletic body of the acrobat,” notes the exhibition’s curator, Katarzyna Szydłowska-Schiller.
In juxtaposition to the unrefined clown acts stood the perfectly executed movements of the trick riders who seamlessly performed challenging acrobatic poses while maintaining their balance horse riding. Though the choreographed movements of their act were the source of applause and admiration, such was not the case with their costume. Dressed in often revealing clothing, in order to facilitate movement, but also, to stand in contrast to the socially accepted vision of femininity – tight-laced, subordinate and relegated to the domestic sphere – the trick rider was a sight to behold.
These two characters are the subject of one of the exhibition’s most prized works – Pablo Picassos’s “Trick Rider and Clowns”, a colored lithograph on paper painted between 1957 and 1961. Depicting three figures, two clowns and a trick rider, the image seems to portray an off-duty scene.
As the three performers enjoy a casual conversation outside of the circus rink, a small dog in the right hand corner joins in on the agreeable moment. Picasso highlights the imperfection of the performers, strips them of their entertainment-ready façade and, both literally and figuratively, let’s them enjoy the sunshine outside.
“The clown does anything and everything to amuse the audience but deep down he is sad, lonely and melancholy. That melancholy has a way of appealing to visual artists, many of whom identify with the clown, who upon removing his makeup must, like them, face a life so different to that in the limelight,” writes Szydłowska-Schiller.
This quote by the exhibition’s curator, Katarzyna Szydłowska-Schiller, encapsulates the essence of what drew many towards the circus experience. For sculptor Alexander Calder, however, it was the rudimentary nature of the event that ignited his interest. An early professional assignment, which required him sketching the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, formed the basis of his Cirque Calder (Calder’s Circus) – a miniature circus troupe comprised of meticulously crafted animals, clowns, acrobats and accessories.
CIRCUS at Królikarnia ends with a fragment of a 1955 Jean Painleve film featuring Calder perform his famous miniature circus sets. Screened on a large projector in the central rotunda of the late eighteenth-century palace, it has been adapted to the likeness of a circus with the interior of the rotunda draped in folds of deep red fabric – resembling a quintessential circus tent. The installation is the work of set designer Karolina Fandrejewska, who is also responsible for the layout of the exhibition, and required the help of mountain climbers to put up!
Created to appeal to a wide audience, from children to adults, lovers of art and less so, the exhibition – much like the circus – can be appreciated on many levels of intellectual involvement. With a rich series of complimentary talks, workshops and concerts, there is something for everybody – an egalitarian offer fitting of a circus show.
Ongoing until October 2nd
CIRCUS at Królikarnia
ul. Puławska 113A, website