Circus Magic


Celebrating the modern circus.

Words by & artwork by Baccara Smart

In spite of the darkness, the circus arrives without warning.


I visited India in 2011 with the intention of tracking down two circuses to spend time to get to know, draw, and photograph. From the very onset, it became apparent that the everyday street life held much in common with the circus- rituals; incense, pilgrims, holy cows, and monkeys all converging together, all playing their part.


Within a short time of arriving, I had an unexpected meeting: a box occupying a baroque rug on the pavement. In this compact shelter there was a Parakeet, a Hamster, and a pair of shredded worn shoes. I had to think twice about the materiality of this scene, which turned out to be the set up of an absent fortuneteller, with its objects arranged in a composition resembling a Dutch still life (Fortune Tellers by Moonlight, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 60 cm, 2012).

Throughout my visit to Circuses Rambo and Jumbo, I was able to explore the backstage setting and life as an artist, view their tents, clothes chests and rickety tin huts, which became more of a focus and contrasted with the ancient crafts circling the ring. During this time I came across an additional box set upon a stool. This composition brought an image to mind of an assemblage made by the artist Joseph Cornell (The Box at Dusk, Oil on Canvas, 12 x 17 cm, 2013).


During one show, I wandered into the subterranean region behind the tiered seating. Lit up amongst the shadows was a considerable sized Pelican, who appeared to be watching the activity in the ring. Whether he was a part of the circus entourage or had crept in was uncertain, but his enigmatic form in the dusty atmosphere has become an enduring motif in my paintings since. (The Spectator at Circus Jumbo, Oil on Linen, 12.5 x 15 cm, 2013).

The prevalent dustiness of the peripheral wasteland settings added another visual layer to much of my photography of nighttime performances.  


Just after the show, I went around the back to the living quarters to meet with the clowns. These clowns had the clown walk, intricate, small and fast steps. Some had belly trouble – a persistent issue in India. We all sat on single beds with thin, springy mattresses. Rajib was sleeping; Bitju was chatting and taking off the remains of his make up. A clown called Kumah posed for me as I sketched him standing against a backdrop of a dusty blue void. (Kumah at Circus Jumbo, Oil on Linen, 198 x 152 cm, 2014).

I was captivated by the transnational richness and cultural depth of the circus, with diverse acts such as the Mongolian Foot Juggler, the Ethiopian acrobats, Russian Trapeze and likes of the Moroccan Tumblers. The oscillation between the real and the abstract, the representational to symbolic, the temporary and the constant, provides much to consider for painting and drawing.


Other work inspired from this trip was to come from a visit to Varanasi, an ancient city on the banks of the Ganges. The interplay of people and animals in its narrow alleyways and upon the Ghats where ceremonial cremations happened by day and night resulted in (Ganga Jal, Oil on Linen, 198 x 152 cm, 2016) and (Varanasi Drift Oil on Linen, 198 x 152 cm, 2015). The embankments rise up from the water and are made of stone slabs for pilgrims to perform holy rituals.

In the Rocky Landscape of Hampi in southern India, with its gravity-defying boulders, I climbed to a temple devoted to Hanuman, the monkey God, also known as the god of acrobats. In continuation of my interest in human-animal connections, I painted the temple and its attendant figures in (Hampi, Hanuman Temple, Oil on Linen, 198 x 152 cm, 2017).


On a trip to Russia, some years after returning from India, I arranged to photograph the Bolshoi State Circus in St. Petersburg. Built for the circus in 1827, this was the first stationary circus of this distinction and was considered one of the most impressive of its time, with allegorical sculptures wearing masks and carved horse heads. Unfortunately, the building was closed for renovation and the circus once again occupied a tent on a slightly sparse peripheral site (By Twilight, Bolshoi Circus, St. Petersburg, Oil on Linen, 20 x 30 cm, 2017).

I positioned myself at the ring doors backstage beside the Wheel of Fortune. Due to issues with the electricity, it was especially dark; all the elements had a heightened contrast, the figures were black yet ghostly and set against a harsh silver light from the performance. (The Ring Doors at The Bolshoi Circus St. Petersburg, Oil on Linen, 20 x 30 cm, 2015).

As usual, I was drawn to the clowns and they were particularly comfortable with my curiosity, we communicated through facial grimaces, and there were plenty of jokes. Out of this encounter came (Valery Kashkin and Vladimir Samoletov, Oil on Canvas, 18 x 12 cm, 2014). This work is part of the Circus Museum collection in St. Petersburg.


Having gathered material from these visits, the resulting paintings evolved slowly in my studio for some years, with many paintings still in progress.

The surfaces are often quite built up with layers of varnish and spray paint and then sanded back into. The dustiness and the heightened atmosphere is alluded to in these dispersions.


I continue to visit circuses in order to gather material for my studio practice. Out of the UK shows, in particular, Gifford’s Circus with their folkloric quality and traditional settings stand out. Often you will spot a farmyard animal proudly performing. The aesthetics of the show, such as the painted waggons, the handmade costumes and the live music is consistently rewarding.

The Insect Circus performs in the sideshow tradition and has a feeling of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as can be also seen in the contemporary paintings of Andrew Cranston. His domestic spaces are suggestive of stage sets and, as though you are looking through a magnifying glass, are seen through a thick, murky pool of varnish.

The circus tradition, after so many years, has not lost any of its sparkle. Next year is the 250th anniversary of Phillip Astley, the founder of the modern circus, which was established in London in 1768. There will be a range of events occurring throughout the year to commemorate his creations, celebrating the magic of the modern circus.

Baccara Smart is a painter and collector of Circus experiences. She has travelled widely to do so and enjoys the unusual situations that this often entails.