P.T.Barnum’s Bearded Ladies, Donner Party: Lance Esplund
When Jumbo the elephant arrived in New York in 1882 he was an instant success, transforming the circus from bawdy attraction to family entertainment.
When he was killed by a locomotive, the circus display of his hide and skeleton sparked the headline: “Jumbo Stuffed a Greater Attraction than Jumbo Alive.”
The popular elephant figures prominently in the Bard Graduate Center’s big-top extravaganza, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.”
There are other exotic animals, as well as clowns, contortionists, daredevils, bearded ladies, Zulu cannibals, the “Fejee Mermaid” and General Tom Thumb, whose velvet suit, boots and tiny violin are featured artifacts.
But the star of the show is showman extraordinaire Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). You can see his faded top hat and letterhead, illustrated with a parade of animals, Siamese twins and the Last Supper.
As in life, Barnum here is hard to ignore. His unidentified visage fills one poster with the words: “I am coming.”
The show has something for all ages: It chronicles not just the evolution of the circus and its effects on New York, but also the history of graphic and fashion design, photography, toys, advertising and the rise of the Big Apple as the entertainment capital of the world.
“Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010” runs through Feb. 3 at the Bard Graduate Center Galleries, 18 W. 86th St. Information: +1-212-501-3023; http://www.bgc.bard.edu.gallery.
A bittersweet air permeates Neue Galerie’s intelligent exhibition, “Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity.”
The exhibition includes 65 paintings and 20 drawings, mostly late works, as well as 45 intimate photographs of Hodler (1853-1918). They show the Swiss Symbolist doing everything from painting pictures and pruning vines to lying on his deathbed.
A somber section of drawings and paintings chronicles his mistress’s illness and death from cancer. Some of these pictures, along with his strong, wide-eyed self-portraits, are among the most affecting works on view.
Its most ebullient works are landscapes. Though northern -- even desolate and brittle -- their mountains and skies are often saturated with color. At times, his spare sunsets presage the abstractions of Mark Rothko.
But Hodler, also prefiguring Lucian Freud, was primarily a figure painter, but without much feeling for flesh.
His skeletal paintings of the female nude resemble tinted drawings. Far from erotic, his images of the women with roughened skins -- furrowed like soil -- are well-drawn, earnest and hard-won.
“Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity” runs through Jan. 7 at the Neue Galerie, 1084 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-628-6200; http://www.neuegalerie.org.
If you haven’t visited the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library since its $70 million renovation, now is the perfect time.
After a long tour, 45 of its Hudson River School paintings, a number of them national treasures, have returned home. The commanding, one-room exhibition is a majestic grand tour of the U.S., with breathtaking works by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, George Inness and John Frederick Kensett.
The tour-de-force is Cole’s five-part fictional landscape series “The Course of Empire” (1833-36). Beginning with dawn on a savage wilderness, it progresses to a pastoral idyll and then through the height, hellfire-destruction and desolation of civilization.
There are complicated politics and history at work in some of the most romantic pictures on view. Bierstadt’s serene, panoramic “Donner Lake From the Summit” (1873) was commissioned by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. It honors the ill-fated Donner Party, not the Central Pacific Railroad, and Huntington initially refused the painting because the railroad was obscured.
Steeped in the European landscape tradition of Claude, Poussin, Corot and Courbet, the show’s greatest works celebrate the American sublime.
“Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School” runs through Feb. 21 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, 170 Central Park West. Information: +1-212-873-3400; http://www.nyhistory.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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