The Nomad and the bum: or when the circus met the poster


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Gripping. Colourful. Many-sided. Surprising. Charming. Funny. Naïve. Frightening. Mysterious. Breath-stopping. Magical. Spectacular. Beautiful. Dangerous. Kind. Unexpected. Swirly. Shining. Lavish. Stopping the heart beating. Different. Flexible. Inspiring. Theatrical. Screening. Musical. Dancing.  Picturesque. Quiet. Dark. Bursting in applauses.

Circus could be any of the above. It can be whatever it wishes to be.

Hence, everyone has their circus, as a first or a last memory, as an idea, experience and emotion. There is no middle position – you either fall in love forever with this particular multi-genre performance art, or you never allow the red arena to grab your soul. Circus grabs us in the childhood, somewhere there in its nomadic, mischievous inconsistency. It anchors at the square, between the shades of the city in order to tower its dome. But before we succeed to view it in all its glory, we understand that the circus has arrived because of a poster.

What happens when the nomad meets the multicoloured smile of this bum (as Chavdar Mutafov calls it)? It temporary stays on its flat printed face in order to remind of itself and says that magic is on its way. But is this all?

Outside the boundaries of this visual image, the circus continues to lead a very different life. Its poster is its short meta-narrative. A story which will be born a second time and then it will multiply there somewhere between the springboards, torches and balls, hula hoops and veils, the sugar cubes of the trainers, the red noses of the clowns, the note sheets of the circus band, and the bow tie of the presenter. In the polyphony of the performance each performer is a carrier of his own story, which will be revealed in front of the spectators. It is not obligatory to have a common storyline. This marks the specific relationship with the audience – each individually has to put the puzzle together and make their own meaning.

The orchestration of the plot in the contemporary forms, as it is in the circus theatre of Cirque du Soleil, is much more interesting. The spectacle obeys a single circus epic narrative. The accents of meaning and messages are expressed via a complete framework, which unites the genres and follows a common aesthetic concept. Actually, this guarantees a massive experience from a completely different level. The poster feels well the differences, which are a fruit of the evolution of the circus art. Therefore, in the visual vibration of the bum the nomad is expressed through various artistic concepts – collage, portrait, abstract, photographic, crowded, mono-stage, overflowing from image into letters, deconstructing the text, clean, or even kitsch.

The poster, in its most popular hypostasis, when it announces the circus and cinema during the various historical times, is an extremely interesting object. As researchers, we definitely owe both arts, viewed from the optics of graphic design (It is a matter of another painful experience, the question about the complete oblivion towards the circus art in Bulgaria in the archival and art studies sense, of course, with a few exceptions).

It is not a coincidence that there is a funny kind of chemistry between the cinematographer and the spectacle on the arena. They seem to share a common destiny at the beginning of the 20th century: to be categorized with a disregard in the group of the cheap fair entertainment, which were initially treated as unsuitable by the elite members of the audience. As Edward Gregory states, “Cinema was born in the era of the poster”. Circus, however, has a much longer history and had existed before the emergence of both.

Many years ago, the clown Dinko shared with me in an interview that ‘The circus and its tricks do not get old, it is the actor that ages’. With the poster the case is dichotomous – it gets old just like an old newspaper, after the show it announces has passed. Yet, since it prints the memory of the images it continues to live through the images it reveals. Films also can get old, but when they reach the circus – this does not happen. The screen treats life respectfully, which follows the light on the arena. The camera dives into the lights under the dome so as to find that artistic reality which interests it, in order to catch the memories about it in moving pictures. The list with eminent directors, who remained in the classical circus kaleidoscope, is fully expressive. We can begin with Alice Gee and Charlie Chaplin, to continue with Ted Browning and finish with Federico Fellini and Wim Wenders. We can go even beyond all these names.

The film poster implies the plot provocatively, whereas the circus poster most often provokes the senses and the longing for the spectacle, without mentioning the narrative. The cinema stars are inarguably the actors, while the stars of the arena are all those genres of the circus like acrobats, jugglers, antipodes, animal tamers, even the animals themselves. That is why they most frequently are shown on the posters. The tent and the lit letters of the CIRCUS sign are also among the most popular symbols to which the bum pays a special attention. But in the centre of its universe is, most of all, the clown, they are the emanation, the circus unifier. They love all and everyone love them… “If a child or an adult joins a performance and after it, they do not remember a single thing then there was no clown” (again from the interview).

The poster also holds cinematographic features. It juggles boldly with them especially when we speak about circus, because the image needs to be dynamic, enticing, attractive, influential and compositionally powerful, iconic and laconic. Therefore, it is no surprise that the film and circus posters drawn by Bulgarian artists are somehow identical. A lot of Bulgarian artists work for both cinema and circus. In Dragomir Draganov’s archive collection (see, we observe the same techniques as with the posters drawn for DP ‘Film distribution’.

Some of the works are signed with the full names of the author, which we can encounter on a circus poster too. Vasilii Kovakevski, Ivan Getsov, Yani Yanev, Sotir Sotirov, Svetoslav Yanakiev, Konstantin Chernev, Simeon Danchev, Atanas Mihalchev, Ivan Lalov, Karina Chinkova, Mario Marinov, Encho Pironkov, Dimitar Tasev, Assen Stareishinski, Bozhidar Ikonomov. Evene one of the works is made by Hristo Kazandzhiev – the famous clown Kiki. However, quite often, at the corners of a poster, there are only initials. Not many of these works are anonymous and the identification of the artist is needed, so sometimes it is a true challenge for collectors and researchers. The archive heritage, representing Bulgarian circus through the art of the poster is part of the memory of our culture. By preserving and collecting all these arte facts, we not only stop oblivion, but we can also peek into the various epochs and beings of the circus. For instance, we can conclude with great delight that the circus poster was free from ideological statements during the years of socialism, which is a sheer paradox.

The visual language of the poster rushes relentlessly into the exterior and interior space of everyday life in order to reproduce the vitality of the circus. Circus, just like cinema, cannot reach all of its spectators. (Indeed, we can watch it on TV, on our mobile screen or on various platforms online, but yet, it is not the same. It is a live art after all. In this train of thought, it is cinema that stays best on a wide screen in a theatre hall.) Posters guarantee a full coverage of areas where circus cannot be at present. The poster has the ability to appear everywhere so this way the bum also turns in somewhat of a nomad. It is not embarrassed to yell loudly its messages. It is as well free of charge for the addressee, the person who receives the visual message, while for other forms of art you need to purchase a ticket. The domination and level of energy of the visual image do not require a specific type of literacy – one cannot be able to read and write and can still sense intuitively its pictorial talk. The circus poster usually carries the comic, the premonition of fun and entertainment. Sometimes it also speaks of the mystic, wonderful, unimaginable, extraordinary, and never of the dramatic and the tragic.

The circus is an escape. And the poster criminally and playfully urges towards such kind of escape.

Well, what remains after the lights go off?

A return to the event via the memories, emotions and beauty… Indeed.

Sometimes, however, only the round traces on the earth are noticeable, the marks from the tent and the arena, the torn pieces from the poster – cuts from nobody needed paper body. And somewhere in the middle, quietly, just like Chaplin, the clown could be seated, forgotten by everybody. Actually, that is right, just like a forgotten clown I foresee the lack of a deeper interest in the history, the archive, theory and aesthetics of Bulgarian circus. Thanks to this exhibition, I believe, ‘circus won’t stay sad forever’, if I may paraphrase Valeri Petrov’s poem ‘A button for sleep’.

The Nomad and the bum: or when the circus met the poster

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