Alexander Calder’s fascination with the circus began in his mid-twenties, when he published illustrations in a New York journal of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, for which he held a year’s pass. It was in Paris in 1927 that he created the miniature circus celebrated in this film – tiny wire performers, ingeniously articulated to walk tightropes, dance, lift weights and engage in acrobatics in the ring. The Parisian avant-garde would gather in Calder’s studio to see the circus in operation. It was, as critic James Johnson Sweeney noted, `a laboratory in which some of the most original features of his later work were to be developed.’ This film exudes the great personal charm of Calder himself, moving and working the tiny players like a ringmaster, while his wife winds up the gramophone in the background. The Circus is now housed at the Whitney Museum in New York. —The Roland Collection of Films & Videos on Art.
Le Cirque as made in 1961 by Carlos Vilardebó, and it’s been shown widely around the world–and in the lobby of the Whitney Museum–ever since. Since the Circus’s actual figures are now too fragile to leave the Whitney, the film usually serves as a proxy, providing a window into this crucial, early body of Calder’s work.
Calder’s fascination with movement and working with wire led him first to create wire sculpture ‘portraits,’ and later informed his creation of mobiles. But the popularity of le Cirque Calder in 1920’s and 1930’s Paris helped Calder form relationships with artists like Miro and Mondrian who were themselves extremely influential on Calder’s work.
Live performances lasted up to two hours and included twenty or more acts and an intermission. [The Calder Foundation’s website rather irrelevantly points out that Circus performances predate so-called “performance art” by several decades. The work is important enough not to try to stretch it so far beyond its obvious theatrical and puppet show precedents.]
A note about distribution-uber-alles, the Vilardebo film is at least the second filmed version of the Calder Circus. In 1953, the pioneering science filmmaker Jean Painlevé made Cirque de Calder, which exists in both 40- and 60-minute versions. But it’s Vilardebo’s later film–and the shorter version of it–which has gained the biggest audience.