A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter to the Travis County Rodeo, not so much for the animals and shows, as for the accompanying carnival run by Crabtree Amusements. They have some excellent rides, but what always catches the eye is that for larger events they also bring along their classic sideshow. What draws your eye to the sideshow is the wall of colorful banners advertising attractions like “Molly the Mermaid,” the “Chupacabra” and of course “Tyrone the Giant Rat.”
Those banners are by Bobby Rawls, one of several contemporary artists who specialize in recreating the look of classic sideshow banners which follow a format and style which goes back more than a century. The frame is always red, the title banner is gold, there’s usually an emblem with a one-word epithet like “Alive!” and the art itself is highly stylized with bold contrasting colors. Of course, the figures are grotesque and titillating, provoking the viewer to come into the sideshow and see what the real thing is like.
The classic style of the Rawls banners derives directly from the work of the prolific Fred G Johnson who designed banners for the great sideshows of the early 20th century when circuses and smaller carnivals and other travelling shows were one of the dominant forms of performance art accessible to a wide audience in the pre-television era. Johnson worked for 65 years, with most of his career at the O. Henry Tent and Awning Company in Chicago until he retired in 1974. While his work derived from older styles, his long career defined the style and is widely imitated.
Johnson’s work has to be classed as primitive art. Perspectives are skewed and figures have a surreal two-dimensionality, out of proportion to their backgrounds. The emphasis is always on the primary figure who is, after all, the star of the show. Like a lot of primitive art, Johnson’s work is striking and highly effective. If it were more realistic or more detailed it would lose some of the eye-catching power which makes it effective. Since his death, Johnson’s work has hung in museum exhibits and pieces have been auctioned at Sotheby’s and other auction houses for thousands of dollars.
Johnson was influential, but he was only one of many artists who did banners for sideshows in the first half of the 20th century when they were at their height of popularity, and the work of some of those other artists rivals or even exceeds Johnson’s in quality, though none were as prolific. And with the revival of the popularity of sideshows in recent years other artists have joined the tradition, either doing new posters for new sideshows or adapting the style to other purposes.
Paul Sautzer has done some very clever modern sideshow banners, including a series for the amateur carnival which accompanies the Mount Desert Island Marathon every year. A company called Bandimals will design and produce custom banners in the traditional style for any purpose at relatively reasonable prices. A lot of good examples of contemporary sideshow art can be found at SideshowWorld.
If you like folk art with a long history and interesting subjects, you can always wait for a local gallery to put on an exhibit, or the next time a carnival comes to town, go down and take a look at the banners at the sideshow. They may be more of a revelation than the often shabby wonders inside the tent.