Throughout the 19th and 20th century many artists turned to the modern city and its late night entertainment for their subjects, including the circus. They made innovate use of colour, perspective and movement to convey its vibrant atmosphere.
‘The Circus’ is the third panel in a series by Seurat, whose style evolved from impressionism. It is seen as one of the most successful applications of his theory of divisionism – placing small strokes of contrasting colour side by side so that when seen from a distance they blend to create the effect of luminosity. This can be seen most clearly upon close examination of the stage floor, which is made up of a combination of red, yellow and blue dots. Only the three primary colours and white are used, but flat colour is nowhere to be found. This technique conveys the vibrancy of the circus.
The canvas is divided into two spaces – the stage and the audience. As well as being divided spatially, it is divided by motion. Whilst the audience’s space is geometric and rigid, movement is injected onto the stage space in the foreground using the strong dynamic curves of the circus ring, acrobat’s bodies and ringmaster’s whip. Seurat depicts the circus as a vortex of energy.
German expressionist painter Kirchner saw Berlin as a city of excitement and glamour, but with an undercurrent of artificiality and chaos. He painted urban life and the everyday world, with a particular interest in human naturKirchner was drawn to the circus for its constant action. He wrote in his manifesto “I believe that all human visual experiences are born from movement.” He often sketched the action from life whilst seated in the audience, later working up the surface texture to inject movement into the canvas. He uses pictorial devices to capture the full sensory experience of an observer at the circus. His revolutionary use of colour conveys the vivid costumes of the performers, whilst the compressed composition and angled perspective forces everything into one plane of space, recreating the claustrophobic sense of being enclosed in a circus bursting with noise and energy. The circus would bring together an audience from diverse classes and backgrounds, providing a wide range of human subjects to sketch. Kirchner’s unnatural colour and perspective come together to communicate the heightened artificiality of the urban spectacle.
The circus was an influence on Chagall throughout his life, beginning with a fascination with the travelling acrobats he saw at village fairs as a child in Russia. When he lived in Paris he would regularly visit the circus to sketch from the audience like Kirchner. This explains the similar dramatic perspective in ‘The Circus’ which situates the viewer as a member of the audience looking down on the performers. He was captivated by the chaotic and colourful atmosphere. The circus performers in their extravagant costumes and garish makeup fitted perfectly into his dream like compositions. He said, ‘For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world.'The primary attraction of the circus for these artists was the microcosm of life it contained, from the comic to the tragic as well as the broad range of social classes it brought together.