NARRATOR: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, to the circus.
Beginning in 1926, Calder combined his fascination with movement, animals, and caricature into Le Cirque Calder.
What you see here are a number of acts, each consisting of different characters—acrobats, a bearded lady, a lion tamer and his lion. When performed, Calder would manipulate the parts and figures before you⎯in one ring, one act at a time.
He would make bleachers from wood crates and planks; erect two tall poles for the high wire and trapeze; hand out cymbals and other noisemakers; cue up records on his gramophone and give his guests a full evening’s entertainment. It was what could be described as the first instance of performance art.
Through the Circus, Calder became good friends with an impressive list of artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Edgar Varèse, Le Corbusier, and Piet Mondrian. These members of the Parisian avant-garde appreciated Calder’s love of play and spectacle—a performance of the Circus meant a very good time. But the artists were also drawn to the serious side of the Circus. Fun mixed with death and danger: the knife thrower aiming to hit a target perilously close to his favorite assistant sometimes missed—with tragic results. But Calder would use the same female figure in the next act, a clever touch his audiences appreciated.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, modernist artists across Europe were searching for ways to merge art and life, technology and design. As playful as Calder’s performance may seem, it beautifully exemplifies these avant-garde impulses. The fact that he put his objects in motion, the characteristic state of modernity, wouldn’t have been lost on any of his observers. And the individual acts were engineered with a great deal of technical skill.
Director’s Tour Audio Guide Stop for Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31
ADAMWEINBERG: Alexander Calder magically breathed life into inanimate objects, using wire and recycled materials to create this army of circus characters. Beginning in 1927, Calder performed the Circus in Paris, New York and elsewhere. He would issue invitations to his guests, who would sit on makeshift bleachers, munching peanuts, just like the real circus. With the crash of cymbals and music from an old gramophone, the Circus would begin. Calder was the impresario and circus ringmaster. He announced the acts, animated the figures, and provided a running narration of the action. Nearby, you can see a video of Calder performing the Circus.
Many of the individual circus animals and performers include mechanized parts—Calder was originally trained as a mechanical engineer. It wasn’t the tricks or gimmicks of the circus that appealed to Calder, but the dynamic movement of bodies in space. He first went to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus in 1925. He was inspired by the mechanics of the circus and made hundreds of drawings of the equipment and the ropes and the guy wires for the tents.
Later in his career, Calder turned his attention to more abstract work. In 1930, he visited the studio of artist Piet Mondrian. He was delighted with Mondrian’s work, and later recalled, “I thought at the time how fine it would be if everything there moved.” He went on to invent the mobile and other works of moving sculpture.