Thursday, January 23, 2014

"The Greatest Show on Earth" by William Woodward, Part 1

William Woodward
I am not a circus person.  I don't have fond memories of going to the Big Top, and my feelings about clowns range from irritating to creepy.  (Stephen King's "It" didn't help any in that regard.)  And yet I love going to the Circus Museum and the Tibbals Learning Center at the Ringling Museum.  And so I found myself at last week-end's ViewPoint Lecture Series at the Historic Asolo Theater at the Ringling.  The talk featured William Woodward, the artist who created the mural "The Greatest Show on Earth" that now lives at the Tibbals Learning Center, and Peggy Williams, Education Outreach Manager for Feld Entertainment.

Woodward began his talk with a bit of family history that seemed to make it inevitable that he would paint "The Greatest Show on Earth."  Long before Woodward was born, his grandfather and his great-uncle ran away to join the circus.  They ended up not as performers, but as painters of the signs advertising sideshows like little Tom Thumb.  Post-circus life, Woodward's grandfather continued to paint large scale commercial signs, a vocation that became the family business.  It's hard to imagine another artist for whom this project would feel so personal.    

It was fascinating to hear Woodward speak about the process of creating murals in general and this mural in particular (which, at 924 square feet, is the largest mural painted by a single artist in the 20th century). Woodward explained to the audience some of the differences between easel painting and mural painting.  Murals are narrative in nature and are intended for an "ambulatory spectator."  (I love that phrase.) Murals require significant planning; the artist can't just hope that it all will come together (or start over if it doesn't turn out!)  And, for a historical project such as this one, intensive research is required before a paintbrush is ever picked up.

William Woodward with his cartoon
The preliminary drawing for a mural is called a "cartoon."  As you can see in this image, it is a gridded work that lays out the dimensions of the painting.  (As a side note, the Ringling Museum of Art is home to several of Rubens' tapestry murals that served as cartoons for some of his large scale paintings.)   Woodward's cartoon was photographed and then projected onto the wall at Feld Entertainment's headquarters in Virginia, original home to the mural.  He then traced the drawing onto two huge gridded canvases that were affixed to the wall.  (This is the stage at which the person who commissioned the work has to speak or forever hold his peace, because there's no going back once painting begins.)  Woodward then did an acrylic underpainting of the work that was monochromatic with some slight indications of the color to come followed by overpainting in oil.

Portrayal of Gunther Gebel-Williams
Woodward was enthusiastic about his research for the project, which found him both behind the scenes at the circus and poring through more than 20 years of circus programs.  He said that being on the floor of the circus felt oddly nautical with all of the ropes and pulleys.  He was enthralled with the "interspecies rapport" between the performers and the animals.  He told a story about Gunther Gebel-Williams, the leading animal trainer at the time.  Gunther (like many circus performers) spoke multiple languages and would coach different animals in different languages.  Woodward watched him as he went into a cage and told the elephants to "sit" in German, while the tigers waited for their instructions in English.  (I suspect I don't have the languages right, but you get the point.)

Portrayal of Laura Litts Weiss
Woodward shared how he was inspired by the work of different artists as he worked on the project.  The drama and excitement of the circus -- and, he hopes, the mural itself -- reminded him of Rubens' work.  The anatomy of the performers, particularly the acrobats, brought him back to Michelangelo.  (He once was flown to California where Gunther was performing just to get a picture of Gunther's hand to work from.)  And then there were quiet moments backstage when he would come upon a scene like the one pictured here that calls to mind the work of Degas.

The "Greatest Show on Earth" was donated by Feld Entertainment to the Ringling in 2012 when the company moved its headquarters.  Needless to say, moving the work was a huge project in and of itself.  In my next post, I'll share some of the tidbits from Peggy William's talk about the performers that are featured in the work.

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