Circus poster exhibit at Cincinnati Art Museum brings lithographic prints to life

Before the appearance of movies, television, and zoos, the circus was all of those things bundled into a single great traveling show. Advertisement of that product took the form of large lithograph prints, many of them produced here in Cincinnati by the Strobridge Lithographing Company. The Amazing American Circus Poster exhibit, on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) now through July 10, features 80 posters taken from the collection the company gave the museum upon its dissolution in 1971.

Produced between 1878 and 1939, the posters reflect a progression of artistic styles, advances in printing techniques, and the evolution of the circuses themselves. The character of the posters and the acts they advertised were not random – they are the product of the earliest marketing studies, creating the blueprint for mass marketing by 20th-century corporations. Conspicuous is the rise of star women performers: female acrobats, lion tamers, weight lifters, etc., captured the public’s interest, and therefore its disposable income, more than men performing the same acts.

This presents several dilemmas: should the circus operators be applauded for empowering women (and also foreigners, Siamese twins, and other outsiders on their payrolls), or should they be admonished for giving the appearance of empowerment while simply exploiting these individuals? And to what extent did the circus posters themselves shape exoticism?

The cultural complexities created and reflected by the circuses and how they were advertised will be the subject of the Circus Poster Symposium this Sunday, May 1, at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Admission to the symposium is $10 general public; $5 students, seniors, Enjoy the Arts members; free Art Museum members. Reservations recommended.

The Amazing American Circus Poster exhibit is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through July 10. The Cincinnati Art Museum, at 953 Eden Park Drive, is open 11am to 5pm Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free to the public; parking is $4 for non-members. The Terrace Café, located in the museum, is open 11am to 3pm Tuesday through Sunday.

Emily Schneider contributed to this story.