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American Carnival Sideshow Banners

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American Carnival Sideshow Banners

  1. 1. American Carnival Sideshow Banners: Exploring both sides of the canvas Lawrence McElroy Johns Hopkins University April 24, 2013 Hosted by the American Museum of Folk Art
  2. 2. The Canvas Wall Between Us Pete Kortes Side Show, circa 1948. Photo: The Circus Blog
  3. 3. The Canvas Wall Between Us The carnival sideshows which criss-crossed the American continent during their heyday, all utilized walls of blazingly colorful canvas banners to attract their audience. These banner lines, displaying exaggerated imagery and irresistible enticements, became the sideshow’s recognizable trademark. Countless slack- jawed audience members gladly traded their money for a ticket to see for themselves. Arguing for the artistic merits of these sideshow banners is the recent resurgence in interest in vintage sideshow banners as collectible objects of art. Unfortunately, the genre has a darker side due to the shocking and insensitive nature of the imagery used in many banners. This imagery provides a unique glimpse into the conscience of the American heartland during this period of history, and allows us to reflect on the progress our society has made since then, and how far we have yet to travel.
  4. 4. Human Freaks. Photo: Defending Freak Shows.
  5. 5. Bannerline. Photo: Sideshow World.
  6. 6. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Date: 1919. Photo: Sideshow World Hagenbeck Wallace Circus Sideshow. Photo: Sideshow World. James. M. Cole Circus, circa 1930’s. Photo: Sideshow World Al G. Barnes Circus Sideshow. Photo: Sideshow World.
  7. 7. Animal Annex. Photo: Sideshow World.
  8. 8. The first section of “Exploring the Other Side of the Canvas” highlights notable sideshow banner artists and contains biographical sketches. Visitors will also find historical photographs of their studios, along with personal notes from the artists about the process of creating banners. An unfinished canvas by artist Snap Wyatt provides a look at a work in progress. What colors would you choose? The Artists and the Process
  9. 9. Photos: Sideshow World
  10. 10. Photos: Sideshow World
  11. 11. “Cavalcade World of Wonders”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Photo: Cult of Weird The Art of Sideshow Banner Painting
  12. 12. Some sideshow banner painters were remarkably talented, and their work often incorporated elements associated with fine art. The paintings featured in this section of the exhibition blur the line between “sign painter” and “artist”. One example of this phenomenon is a banner titled “Monkeys” produced by Nieman Eisman. The composition of the work incorporates a dynamism that directs the viewer’s eyes around the canvas. The simian figures in the background are diminutive and muted, enhancing the drama of the brightly colored figures in the foreground. The splashes of color across the painting’s background are reminiscent in effect and technique to that of early abstract artists. This painting, produced by an artist with no formal training, exhibits a remarkable understanding of design, color and composition. The background of “Monkeys” is strikingly similar to Wassily Kandinsky’s canvas “Bright Picture 1913”, and it could be argued that the groundbreaking visual concepts detailed in Kandinsky’s 1926 treatise, “Point and Line to Plane” can be found in “Monkeys”. Here, the tonal splashes are gaily linked to darting figures through the linear monkey tails and curving vines. Eisman’s painterly treatment of the surface and effective use of imagery creates a visual excitement for the viewer, and exemplifies the high caliber of work which was often produced by the best of the sideshow banner painters. Other works in this section, likewise share interesting affinities with fine art. The Art of Sideshow Banner Painting
  13. 13. “Monkeys”. Artist: Nieman Eisman Photo: Sideshow World
  14. 14. “Monkeys”. Artist: Nieman Eisman Photo: Sideshow World “Bright Picture 1913”. Artist: Wassily Kandinsky. Photo: Stavros Pavlides
  15. 15. “Snake Charmer”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Eric Reber
  16. 16. “Snake Charmer”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Eric Reber “Odalisque With Slave. Artist: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Date: 1839-1840. Photo: Harvard Art Museums.
  17. 17. “Monkeys-Porcupines”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Size: 93 in x 116 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  18. 18. “Exotic Moroccan Moments”. Artist: Unknown Photo: Eric Reber
  19. 19. “Damascus Dancers” by Kimball & Sterling. Artist: Unknown. Size: 13’6” x 11’3” Photo: Live Auctioneers
  20. 20. “Yogy Ray”. Artist – Unknown. Photo: Sideshow World
  21. 21. “Electric Wonder”. Artist: Jack Cripe. Circa 1950. Size: 120 in x 120 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  22. 22. “Tattooed Girl”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.
  23. 23. “Champion Sword Swallower”. Artist: Nieman Eisman (attributed) Photo: Amusing the Zillion
  24. 24. “Barker at a sideshow at the Rutland Fair, Rutland, Vermont”. Photo: Library of Congress The Magnetism of Sideshow Banners
  25. 25. Sideshow banners were not originally intended to be admired as works of art. They were designed to stop traffic on the carnival midway so the carnival “barkers” could gather a crowd and persuade as many as possible to buy a ticket. In this capacity, the banners functioned extremely well. Images were designed to be so outrageous, passersby were compelled to stop and contemplate. Could an actual mermaid really be inside? The long-running financial success of the sideshow business is evidence of the effectiveness of sideshow banner art to mesmerize an audience. Banner art in this section highlights the advertising tools and techniques which banner artists used so well. The Magnetism of Sideshow Banners
  26. 26. “Human Paradox”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Size: 94 in x 120 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery “Upside Down Family”. Artist: Unknown. Size: 119 in x 139 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  27. 27. “Strange Girls”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Side Show Banner Gallery “As Strange As It Seems”. Artist: Unknown. Size: 94 in x 120 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  28. 28. Sideshow Audience. Circa 1930’s. Photo: Sideshow World The Other Side of the Canvas: What Will You See ? Two girls on the midway, circa 1930’s. Photo: Sideshow World
  29. 29. The imagery and messages contained in the banners exhibited in this section are shockingly insensitive and offensive. The artwork is creative but the message is distressing and appalling. These sideshow banners were originally displayed for a general public of all ages, but “Exploring the Other Side of the Canvas” audience members are cautioned to consider the implications before proceeding. Much like the sideshow ticket holders of the past, audience members entering this exhibition section will step through an invisible canvas curtain and emerge in “their” world. On this side of the canvas, you will see the faces of the real people put on exhibit as a result of their physical abnormalities, gender, skin color or mental disabilities. On this side of the canvas you will confront the issue of what it means to be “normal”, and you will be compelled to confront the moral and ethical dilemma of exhibiting humans for profit. You will see the graphic images which made this practice so successful. The Other Side of the Canvas:
  30. 30. Racial discrimination and strife were unfortunate hallmarks of the past century in America, and exaggerated images of racially-based stereotypes were common in sideshow banners. The banners advertised sideshow attractions which featured minority individuals, particularly of African American descent, as savages, wild-men and inferior sub-humans. This exploitive treatment received shockingly little public outcry and persisted even into the latter half of the 20th century. Insensitivity to Race and Condition “Monkey People”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Museum Syndicate
  31. 31. “The Gorilla Men”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Sideshow World
  32. 32. “Aztec Indian”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Size: 90 in x 114 in. Photo: Sideshow World “Missing Link”. Artist : Fred G. Johnson. Circa 1950’s. Size: 92 in x 112 in. Photo: Liveauctioneers
  33. 33. Arthur Dove, Untitled from Sketch “Ubangi Savages Featured with the Al. G. Barnes Circus Season, 1932”. Photo: Sideshow World “Ubangi”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Photo: Sideshow World
  34. 34. “African Witch Doctor”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Photo: Sideshow Banner Gallery “Strange Little People”. Artist: T. Frank. Size: 116 in x 94 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  35. 35. Lobster Boy, Fat Lady, Penguin Boy, Half-Girl, Pinhead & Other Epithets Persons with physical or mental disabilities were equally exploited by sideshows and sideshow banner artists. Sideshow banners in this section illustrate the cruel creativity used to change an ordinary disease process into an attraction. The use of inventive character names which stretch the imagination reached their zenith in this category of banners; “Penguin Boy”, “Alligator Girl”, “What-Is-It?”. Visual associations with royalty, prestige, or uncommon abilities were also common ploys.
  36. 36. “Lobster Boy”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Date: 1950. Size: 117 in x 139 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  37. 37. “Father & Daughter”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Photo: Cult of Weird Grady Stiles, Jr. was born with a congenital abnormality known as ectrodactyly. Stiles, billed as “Lobster Boy” was reportedly an abusive alcoholic. He was murdered by a contract killer hired by his wife and stepson, who were later imprisoned for the crime (Dougherty, 1996). Photo: flickr
  38. 38. Arthur Dove, Untitled from Sketchbook “E”, ci “Marie Armless Girl”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Photo: Sideshow World. “Louise the Armless Marvel”. Artist: Johnny Meah. Size: 132 in x 109 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  39. 39. Jeannie Tomaini, billed as the “Half- Girl” was married to Al Tomaini “The Giant”. The couple retired from successful careers in the sideshow business and opened a tourist camp in Gibsontown, Florida which became a popular retirement spot for many sideshow performers (Dougherty, 1996). “Jeanie Living Half Girl”. Artist: Nieman Eisman. Date: Circa 1930’s. Photo: Ken Harck
  40. 40. “Bob Melvin”. Photo: Sideshow World. “Two-Faced Man”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: The Antique Circus.
  41. 41. “Percilla – Monkey Girl”. Photo: Sideshow World “Brenda Beatty”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Photo: Cult of Weird.
  42. 42. “Milroy’s Disease”. Photo: Anatomy Box “Ralph the Elephant Boy”. Artist: Millard & Bulsterbaum. Photo: Sideshow World.
  43. 43. “Stanley Berent – Seal Boy”. Photo: Sideshow World. “Penguin Boy”. Artist: Jack Cripe. Size: 137 in x 114 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  44. 44. “Frog Boy”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Sideshow World. “They Are Married”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Date: circa 1950. Size: 115 in x 102 in. Photo: Live auctioneers.
  45. 45. “Alligator Skin Girl”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Photo: Sideshow World. Emmet Bejano suffered from a skin condition known as “Ichthyosis”. Bejano was married to “Percilla the Monkey Girl” who sufferred from hirsutism . The couple retired to Florida where Percilla was fond of flower gardening. Emmett and Percilla were avid dancers, perferring the Cha Cha and Rhumba (Dougherty, 1996). Photo: Sideshow World
  46. 46. “The Moon Man”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Sideshow World “Multiple Neurofibromatosis”. Photo: Dermatlas.
  47. 47. “Circus Fat Lady”. Photo: Five Hundred Pound Peep. “World’s Fattest Man”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Size: 238 in x 83 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  48. 48. “Teenie Weenie Comedians”. Artist: Unknown. Size: 94 in x 120 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery “Giant Ladies”. Photo: Sideshow World.
  49. 49. “Prince Arthur Midget”. Artist: Jack Sigler. Date: 1950. Size: 105 in x 113 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery.
  50. 50. “Pinhead”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Photo: Cult of Weird. Schlitzie Surtees was born Simon Metz, in the Bronx, New York. Billed as a “Pinhead” , Schlitzie was portrayed as a female. Surtees suffered from profound mental disability but reportedly had a zest for live and was adored by everyone who knew him. After retirement from the sideshow, Surtees spent his final years in a nursing home (Dougherty, 1996). Photo: Mentalfloss.
  51. 51. “Hoo La La”. Artist: P. Barnett. Size: 92 in x 113 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery “Hoo La La”: Sex, Sexism and the Exotic
  52. 52. The final section of the exhibition features sideshow banners which blatantly exploited female sexuality. The female body has been a standard subject of artists throughout history and was a favorite of sideshow banner artists as well. Typical of sideshow banners were images of females in alluring poses, usually wearing bikinis or even less. The artistic approach ranged from quite realistic to cartoon- like, but the same formula seemed to apply to all; little clothing and an alluring pose that promised more on the inside. Add palm trees and sand to the mix and suddenly you’re not in Kansas any more. “Hoo La La”: Sex, Sexism and the Exotic
  53. 53. “Black Mask”. Artist: Snap Wyatt (attributed). Photo: First Dibs. “Dance of Death”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Date: circa 1950. Size: 117 in x 92 in. Photo : Sideshow World.
  54. 54. “Andrea”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Sideshow World.
  55. 55. “Tanagra Live Mermaid”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Photo: Museum Syndicate. “The Mermaid”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Size: 94 in x 120 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  56. 56. “Cleo Moon Girl”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Size: 138 in x 119 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery “Mona”. Artist: Snap Wyatt. Size: 138 in x 118 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  57. 57. “Alligator Girl”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery “Tattooed Girl 1037 Designs”. Artist: Fred G. Johnson. Date: 1940-1950. Size: 141 in x 116 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery.
  58. 58. “Eeka’s Native Haunts”. Artist: Al Renton. Size: 77 in x 112 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery. “Eeka Captured”. Artist: Al Renton. Size: 93 in x 115 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery. “Eeka Is Here And Alive”. Artist: Al Renton. Size: 91 in x 114 in. Photo: Carl Hammer Gallery
  59. 59. “Zoma the Sadist”. Artist: Unknown. Photo: Eric Reber.
  60. 60. Illustrations Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Alligator Girl. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). As Strange As It Seems. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Aztec Indians. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Cleo Moon Girl. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Eeka Captured. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Eeka Is Here And Alive. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Eeka’s Native Haunts. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Hoo La La. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm
  61. 61. Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Jack Cripe. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Lobster Boy. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Louise the Armless Marvel. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Mermaid. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Mona. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Monkeys-Porcupines. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Penguin Boy. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Prince Arthur Midget. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm
  62. 62. Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Strange Little People. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Tattooed Girl. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Tattoed Girl With 1037 Designs. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Teenie Weenie Comedians. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Untitled (King-Kong). [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). Upside Down Family. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Carl Hammer Gallery. (2013). World’s Fattest Man In Person. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hammergallery.com/Banners/vintage_side_show_banners_1.htm Cult of Weird. (2013). Father and Daughter. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.cultofweird.com/sideshow/fred-johnson-sideshow-banners/
  63. 63. Cult of Weird. (2013). Pinhead. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.cultofweird.com/sideshow/fred-johnson-sideshow-banners/ Delano, J. (1941). Barker at at Sideshow at the Rutland Fair, Rutland, Vermont. Library of Congress. [Online image} retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998009064/PP/ Dermatlas. (2012). Neurofibromatosis. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://dermatlas.med.jhmi.edu/image/neurofibromatosis_4_080424 Dougherty, L. (Producer/Director), & Trams, P. (Editor). (1996). Sideshow: Alive on the inside [Motion Picture]. United States Big Chief Films. First Dibs. (n.d.). Black Mask. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://shard3.1stdibs.us.com/archivesC/upload/1stdibsB/073109_sb/UrbanCountryLA/13 /x.jpg Five Hundred Pound Peep. (2010). Circus Fat Lady [Online image]. Retrieved from http://fivehundredpoundpeeps.blogspot.com/2010/07/your-future-as-circus-fat-lady.html Flickr. (2010, July). Grady Stiles. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tikiville43/4793935094/
  64. 64. Green, J. (1946, September 28). Rube Merrifield’s Studio at Dreamland, Coney Island. RubeMerrifield: Banner Artist, Scenery Painter. The Tampa Daily Times. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.sideshowworld.com/73-Art-G1/SS-B -Gallery/Rube/Merrifield.html Green, J. (1946, September 28). Rube at Work for Ringling Bros. Merrifield’s Studio at Dreamland, Coney Island. Rube Merrifield: Banner Artist, Scenery Painter. The Tampa Daily Times. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.sideshowworld.com/73-Art-G1/SS-B- Gallery/Rube/Merrifield.html Harvard Art Museums. (n.d.). Odalisque with Slave. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/299806 Hepcat Restorations. (n.d.). Mermaid. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://hepcatrestorations.com/2012/01/25/fred-g-johnson-a-one-man-circus/ Hintz, C. (2012). Brenda Beatty. In The Sideshow Banner Art of Fred G. Johnson. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.cultofweird.com/sideshow/fred-johnson-sideshow- banners/ Hintz, C. (2012). Half Girl. In The Sideshow Banner Art of Fred G. Johnson. [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.cultofweird.com/sideshow/fred-johnson-sideshow- banners/
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