The Zimmerli Art Museum has set its sites on the circus.
Circus culture flourished in Paris during the late 19th century, and French artist Henri-Gabriel Ibels, like many of his contemporaries, was inspired by the performers and their feats when creating his expressive and vibrant works on paper.
The museum’s latest exhibition “Henri-Gabriel Ibels,” which will be on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers from March 2 to Sept. 8, illuminates the ability of this prominent printmaker, illustrator, and poster designer to capture not only the spectacle of live performances, but also the personalities behind them. Using minimal—yet dynamic—lines, Ibels portrays his many subjects’ distinct gestures.
The 25 prints, drawings, pastels, posters, and book illustrations featured in the exhibition are representative of an artist’s role as chronicler in fin-de-siècle Paris. Henri-Gabriel Ibels (1867-1936) established his career in 1889, contributing to illustrated journals and helping to found the Nabis. This group of artists—considered rebels at the time—set the stage for the development of abstract and non-representational art in the early 20th century. Ibels did not pursue the idealistic or symbolic subject matter of his fellow Nabis; he instead chose a journalistic approach. He did, however, incorporate the Nabis’ mixture of fine art, graphic design, and advertising into his work.
“The simultaneous emergence of lithography and the circus as respected art forms has provided us with a rich visual history of popular entertainment at the time,” explains Christine Giviskos, Associate Curator of European Art, who organized the selection from the Zimmerli’s permanent collection.
Equestrian acts, clowns, acrobats, and lion tamers were among the attractions at Paris’s three permanent circuses. By the 1890s, these spectacles were recognized as innovative performance art and as respected as the theater. Ibels’s lithographs “Bird’s-Eye View of the Circus” (1895) and “Au Cirque (At the Circus)” (1893) present unexpected perspectives of the activities in the ring. The viewer senses the anticipation of the performers, knowing that every carefully choreographed movement—no matter how slight—can determine if the routine is a success or a failure.
Ibels and his fellow artists frequented not only the established, professional circuses within the city, but also the “forains,” or fairs, on the outskirts. Giviskos continues, “These itinerant troupes included those who were considered sideshow performers: tightrope walkers, strongmen.” The exhibition includes the artist’s remarkable 1894 suite of etchings “Les Forains (The Fair Performers),” which chronicles both anonymous performers and theatrical celebrities.
Another highlight of the show includes selections from a portfolio on which Ibels collaborated with his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. “Le Café-Concert” depicts the celebrities of the era. The study of Ouvrard, a clown well-known for his physical comedy, captures him in several performance poses, as well as a stance that seems to stare at the viewer. Ibels also observes Auguste Mevisto, known as “The Assassin” for all the villainous roles that he played. Here, the famous actor and singer stands in an undetermined background: is he in character, reacting in a scene; or contemplating private thoughts off the stage?
“Henri-Gabriel Ibels” is spotlighted during two Art After Hours, the eclectic evening series held on the first Wednesday of the month from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. March 6 includes a dance performance by Meagan Woods & Company and a sketching workshop. June 5 features singer Gudrun Buhler and a French shadow theatre workshop. Both evenings begin with a curator-led exhibition tour at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for 65 and over; and free for museum members, children under 18, and Rutgers students, faculty, and staff (with ID).
The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.
Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Wednesday of each month (except August), 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays, major holidays, and the month of August. Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for 65 and over; and free for museum members, children under 18, and Rutgers students, faculty, and staff (with ID). Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 848.932.7237 or visit the museum’s website www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
—The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers