Seurat's Circus Sideshow

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Olivia Birkelund

Published on June 06, 2017

  • Museum: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Visit Date: May, 2017

  • Description:

    According to the curators of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, a sideshow is a noisy, fun preamble to the actual circus. Nineteenth century French artists were drawn to its lively social interactions, its bright lights and colors, and its quirky theatrics. And, Georges Seurat, the French pointillist and focus of the Met show, was no exception. Featured on a separate large exhibition panel, his nocturnal and atmospheric painting, Circus Sideshow, glows with a hush that is impressive, and, as the curators write, Seurat, in his canvas, “silenced the noise” of the wild circus world.

    Unfortunately, the exhibition planners did the same. Exploring the social and artistic world of the European nineteenth century sideshow, the curators have given ample and interesting information. The galleries include many prints and paintings by Seurat’s contemporaries, including Daumier and Signac, all on the subject of the sideshow. There are photographs, etchings, journals and, even, three period instruments. And, all of this information gives the viewer the opportunity to intellectually compare the varied takes on the same theme. On one wall text, the curators suggest the show will invite viewers “to step right up and back in time to appreciate Seurat’s Circus Sideshow in a context that may bring us closer to puzzling out its captivating allure” (http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2017/seurat-circus-sideshow/exhibition-galleries). However, sadly, in the wall labels, exhibition design, and curation, the designers convey a traditional authoritative voice that seems to suck all the fun out of the circus. We are not “step[ping] back in time,” but intellectually, somewhat cooly, noting different artists’ visions.

    An essential part of a sideshow and its circus is mayhem. It’s a visceral experience of sound, touch and ambiance. However, the exhibition offers few-to-no interactive interpretative areas or opportunities for lively visitor participation. One exception is the “stereoscopic format” postcard. Behind a large panel, a small pair of binocular-like lenses protrude out from the wall, inviting us to look through. How exciting! I was allowed to do something! However, there was no explanation about the binoculars (as I call them), how to use them, who used them. And, unfortunately, for this visitor, I couldn’t see the three dimensional postcard very well when I peered through.

    Ironically, although there were many images of raucous circus crowds, and bright primary colors, the circus “hush” continued. How were we to get the feel of the circus hubbub? Why did so many artists want to capture it in images? Walking through, I found a wonderful small three-second film made by a circus audience member in England in1890. Here, the curators hinted at possibilities. The film, of course, was silent. But, the audience within it was vibrant, excited. A man with a boy on his shoulders, points animatedly, asking the child to look at the new invention, the camera that is filming them! His face and gestures are elated. I turned from the film, and looked around me. In deep contrast, the gallery seemed crushingly dull. How could this be remedied? Maybe a velvet curtained booth could be in the center of a gallery. As if parting the curtain of a sideshow, visitors would enter to see the above-mentioned film. The darkened room would be filled with musical and vocal recordings of a sideshow, and sideshow paraphernalia — popcorn boxes, tickets — would be on display. It would be the “noisy” and messy experience that Seurat so beautifully quells in his painting, and we, as visitors, would be able to “feel” the contrast between artistic vision and reality.

    Interestingly, when I was there, it was apparent that some visitors desired a tactile experience as well. A central introductory panel had a large black and white photograph of Seurat’s work. Two visitors went up to touch it to see if the image had actual texture. (Pointillism has a material look to it even when photographed.) They rubbed the wall, and, then, walked away, somewhat disappointed, as there was nothing to feel. Missed opportunities like this one kept coming to mind.

    Beyond somatic entry points for the visitor, there is visitor comfort to consider. Three benches and a large compelling painting seemed to have big audience pull. In a sizable room of its own, The Saltimbanques, painted by Ferdnand Pelez, (a naturalist painter and a contemporary of Seurat), held court. Two large benches were set in front of it. And they were full. Full with three chatting couples and children drawing. Two couples sat talking to each other presumably discussing the work (one was gesturing toward the canvas, the other one was looking at it). Two young children were observing the painting and drawing, while their mother held their pencils. (Free drawing materials would have been a nice add-on.) This level of visitor interaction suggests that benches (and enough room to see the painting) can create engagement. What would have happened if Seurat’s painting, the star of the show, had had the same attention? Circus Sideshow had no benches in front of it, and the painting’s glass threw off such glare, I could only see it properly if I stood on one side. Benches and good lighting. Pretty simple.

    Clear signage also seems to be a no-brainer.
    Linear in its vision, the exhibition starts with a large introductory panel, and moves clockwise with separate wall texts to introduce each subsequent gallery. Under the skylight dome of the Annenberg Collection, the exhibition, architecturally, however, moves in a circle with four large entry points. Because of this, it was very unclear where to enter, and what direction to move in. There was no signage to help the visitor orient herself except for a small “Please enter here” at only one of the entrances. In addition, Seurat’s painting, the focus of the show, is not at that entrance, but hung on another panel a third of the way through the show. As a visitor, I became confused, walked toward Seurat’s painting first, and continued … in the wrong direction. None of the wall texts acknowledge the different entry points. In addition, there were no signs for this modest show in any other parts of the museum. The Grand Hall, the Medieval Hall, etc., gave no indication the show existed. I had to ask two guards where to go.

    However, I was impressed with two particular aspects of the visitor experience: wheelchair accessibility and the size of the show. A large elevator opens to a ramp which leads through one of the spacious entrances. Again, this wasn’t the “start” of the exhibition, so visitors may have been confused as well. However, there were large print texts nearby for easy reading. I noticed how two visitors, who were physically disabled, moved through the show with ease. Their companions read the texts out loud to them, and both groups had enough room to converse and see the paintings. In addition, the show was a manageable size. Contained, limited in scope, it gave the visitor the chance to hone in on one artist and one theme without museum fatigue.

    Ultimately, the shimmering beauty of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow was not lost (and perhaps was highlighted), but the potential for a fun and imaginative visitor experience was. I want to finish with a few photographs I took at the Seurat gift shop just outside the exhibition. On a small paper notebook (that was for sale) visitors, very slyly, had left their mark. Shouldn’t museums give them this opportunity in an open, communal and happy forum?

Latest Comments (1)

wonderful review

by Kathleen Mclean - June 06, 2017

Thank you Olivia for an excellent and thoughtful review. (I’m happy that the upload worked on the 3rd try!) It does seem like organizers missed an opportunity to deepen visitors’ experiences in the exhibition. Of all possible topics, a “sideshow” most obviously invites some loosening of the restraints of authority. Too bad. Your review provides some food for thought for curators and designers, and maybe they will think more creatively next time they create such an exhibition.

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