Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey poster from 1910 hangs at the Circus show. // Circus World Museum/ Ringling Br
THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN at the Toronto Reference Library, TD Gallery (789 Yonge), to October 5. 416-393-7158. Rating: NNNN
On the surface, a summer exhibition on the circus might seem as frivolous as a cultural outing can get.
But just as a top trapeze artist makes complex acrobatics look delightfully easy, the Toronto Reference Library has pulled off a considerable curatorial feat with The Circus Comes To Town. It's a skilfully done and entirely entertaining little show.
Highlights include gorgeous posters from circuses worldwide, enigmatic archival photographs from Canadian circus history, and calliope classics piped into the gallery.
As examples of graphic design history alone, the posters and programs, which span the period from the 1800s to the 1950s, are terrific. Yet their promises of yawning hippopotami, Ben Hur-like horse races and dramatic life-and-death feats also convey a sense of excitement and innocence. Polish pop art examples from the 1960s and 70, some of which show Mona Lisa as a contortionist, rework those tropes in a very witty way.
The archival photographs from the CNE are not to be missed. Particularly stunning is a pic showing a row of elephants lined up on a west-end Toronto street, soon to file into the Dufferin Park racetrack. It's a surreal little piece of local history.
Also great are the ways we learn that professional artists have been influenced by the circus. Top artists like Raoul Dufy (who has a print here), Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso all made circus-related work.
Using books, the curators also point out contemporary art parallels to outrageous Brit dress-up artist Leigh Bowery, chameleonic photographer Cindy Sherman and, of course, famous sideshow-shooter Diane Arbus, among others.
Step right up, ladies and gents. There ain't no hippopotami, but this show is the real deal.