Catherine Jozwik
Visual Art

The Circus Is In Town

Jewish Museum presents the often surreal images of the circus by beloved artist Marc Chagall.

By - Jul 11th, 2019 04:25 pm
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The Circus Parade on Wisconsin Ave., late 1990s. Image courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Barkin Family Collection

The Circus Parade on Wisconsin Ave., late 1990s. Image courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Barkin Family Collection

Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s current exhibit pays tribute to a leading artist in the early modernist and Cubism movementa, as well as to Wisconsin’s long history with the circus.

Artist Marc Chagall’s “Le Cirque,” a collection of more than three dozen of Chagall’s black-and-white and color lithographs–published by Teriade Editions in 1967 and on loan from Manitowoc’s Rahr-West Art Museum–will be on display at the museum through September 8. The exhibit kicked off June 13, with an opening reception that featured a talk by Chagall’s granddaughter, Bella Meyer.

Featuring dreamlike, intensely-colored portrayals of acrobats, clowns, horses, dancers and musicians, “Le Cirque” captures the often-surreal atmosphere of the circus, a subject that fascinated Chagall since his childhood in Belarus (when it was still part of Russia). The circus performers in these lithographs appear to float through the air while crowds watch. The artist weaves worldly and otherworldly elements into his works, including fish, the moon, and animals with human bodies.

“For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. These clowns, bareback riders and acrobats have made themselves at home in my visions,” wrote Chagall. The artist considered the circus the ultimate tragedy, and seems to have empathized with its performers, who would have been considered “freaks” by many at the time and were likely society outcasts and outsiders.

Born Moishe Segal, Chagall has been described as a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin, though he ultimately lived in America. He moved to France in the 1920s. Two decades later, with the help of an American patron of the arts, he and his family managed to escape the country’s Nazi occupation by fleeing to the United States. Once lauded by the press, Chagall and other European Jewish artists sadly saw many of their works derided—and ultimately destroyed—by the Nazi Party. In 1937, a Munich exhibition entitled “Entarte Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) declared pieces by modern artists like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso a threat to German sentiment and nationality.

Aside from having a nontraditional career as an artist, being a non-English speaking immigrant in New York perhaps contributed to Chagall’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings could be reflected in his floating circus figures, pictured as being separated from swelling crowds. Chagall provides a story in French (translated to English) with each of his black-and-white lithographs.

“With time, the circus came to lie at the very heart of his personal mythology and became symbolic of the human condition,” the museum states in its notes on the exhibit.

To complement the Chagall exhibit, the Jewish Museum has displayed a number of Wisconsin circus artifacts, including costumes worn by performers, information about The Ringling Brothers Circus, which was founded in Baraboo, beautifully illustrated posters advertising Milwaukee’s The Great Circus Parade, a model of the 40-horse hitch (a cart pulled by dozens of horses) and a head sculpture of Great Circus Parade co-founder Ben Barkin. Although the Milwaukee circus parade has been discontinued, Baraboo continues to host a Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration. This year’s will be held on July 20.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., will host several events in conjunction with the Chagall exhibit, including Gallery Night July 19 and Gallery Day July 20; and Inspired Travel: Circus World Baraboo, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday July 24, a behind-the-scenes tour of Baraboo’s Circus World Museum. A pop-up gallery will be held 6 to 8:30 p.m. August 1 at the museum. For more information on upcoming events, visit the museum’s website.

Chagall Exhibit

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