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"COME ONE! COME ALL! Marvel at the Wonders of the Circus and Sideshow - The Lure of the Fantastic."
2001-02-04 until 2001-05-13
John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Sheboygan, WI, USA United States of America

Wisconsin was once better known for its circuses than for its cheese, claiming to be the birthplace of the greatest number of circuses in the nation. In the spirit of this heritage, JMKAC is proud to present THE LURE OF THE FANTASTIC from February 4-May 13. This exhibition will feature a visual history that was and continues to be a central aspect of the circus culture.

THE LURE OF THE FANTASTIC explores the folk arts, advertising arts, and visual culture of the American circus and sideshow, their origins and their offshoots. Brightly painted and ornately carved circus wagons, lithographed posters promising irresistible feats and treats, sideshow banners demanding onlookers' attention and provocatively peaking curiosity, costumes designed to flash and sizzle, and dozens of vintage and contemporary photographs reveal a visual tradition that capitalizes on the draw of the non-everyday, the mystical, phenomenal, exotic, and extraordinary.

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the circus in America was unrivaled as the penultimate in public entertainment. From the earliest manifestations comprised of only a few people and animals, the goal was to lure people from the dreariness of everyday life into the realm of extraordinary feats and visions. As circuses and sideshows grew, their success frequently hinged on the acts that defined them, all of which centered on thrill, exotic beasts, unusual talent, and oddity. Never seen before, the most unusual, the fiercest, death defying, and talent beyond imagination these were the platforms from which this visual culture was launched.

Circuses initiated one of history's most impressive advertising campaigns, recognizable instantly for its bombastic superlatives. The no-holds-barred attention-getting words and images sold a product that was frequently available on only one day in a given location. The methods had to be inexpensive, fast to put up, and either transportable or disposable. In hard times, they had to be the one thing that would entice people to part with their money. Circus historians Tom Parkinson and Charles Philip Fox have pointed out that the philosophy of circus advertising relied nearly as heavily on the absence of the circus as it did its presence. Teaser campaigns of newspaper ads, radio spots, and posters warned: THE TERROR IS COMING! BIGGER AND BETTER THAN EVER. YOU HAVE TO SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT.

THE LURE OF THE FANTASTIC explores the way in which circus and sideshow cultures have intentionally drawn upon the human desire to transgress safe and familiar space in order to enter into a place where being amazing is a prerequisite and the bizarre is not only accepted but is given reverential status. While many of the early advertising arts of the circus and sideshow were created by unknown artists or were collaborative projects, several sideshow banner painters became well known for their eye-catching signature style. In addition to several rare banners from the early 1900s, the exhibition features major works by some of the mid- and late-century greats: Fred G. Johnson, Snap Wyatt, Johnny Meah, and a collection of sideshow cabinet cards by photographer Charles Eisenmann, among others.

The Great Marlowe by Nieman Eismann
(1920; paint on unstretched canvas).
From the collection of Jim Secreto.

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