American sculptor. Alexander Calder is best known for his “mobiles” and “stabiles”.
His contribution to the art of puppetry is less well known. In New York in 1925, Calder created illustrations of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus for The National Police Gazette. He travelled to Paris in 1926 and, inspired by his memories of the circus, he began to make articulated toys of wire and wood, which he showed at the Salon des Humoristes. In The Circus (May 1927) Calder animated scenes with his articulated toys at his Paris studio on 22 Rue Daguerre, Montparnasse. In 1927, Legrand Chabrier wrote of the “Cirque Calder”: “Two trapeze artists were fitted to the trunk. The trapeze artists with arms and legs of wires moved as if flying in the flesh.”
By 1929, there were approximately 200 sculptures in Calder’s circus, performing in twenty vignettes. Nothing was missing. There was gramophone music, the beating of drums and cymbals and the roar of the lion. Puppets were grabbed directly or manipulated with rods and strings, sometimes held horizontally. The ringmaster was operated at ground level with a horizontal rod attached to the left foot. A wire passed through a ring at the height of the mouth so that, by pulling a thread, it blew an instrument. By pulling a second wire attached to the other hand, he brought a whistle to his mouth.
Artist friends who enjoyed The Circus included Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Foujita, photographers Man Ray, André Kertész, poets Jean Cocteau, Robert Desnos, architect Le Corbusier, and musician Edgard Varèse. They were amazed by the nimble fingers of this large man who gave life to twisted metal and pieces of tissue. His humour and ability at manipulation made Calder famous. In 1929, he created an enlarged version of a dog puppet for the clown, Fratellini. The dog puppet appeared in many subsequent sketches up to 1953.
Calder’s mobiles, or “objects-ballets”, as he called them, could be considered examples of “object theatre”. During the 1930s, Calder constructed sets for ballets by both Martha Graham and Eric Satie, such as Graham’s 1935 Panorama and Horizons. In 1968, at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, Calder put on stage mobiles with electronic music, evoking his “life in nineteen minutes”.
Alexander Calder loaned his Circus to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, in 1970. The museum formally acquired the circus in 1983. The Calder Circus was filmed in 1955 by Jean Painleve and in 1961 by Carlos Viladebro.
(See United States of America.)
- Calder, Alexander. “Voici une petite histoire de mon cirque” [Here is a Little Story of My Circus]. Permanence du cirque. Paris, 1952.
- Legrand-Legrand. “Un petit cirque à domicile” [A Little Home Circus]. Candide. 23 juin 1927.
- Carlos Viladebro. 1961. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWS96nzFUks
- Jean Painleve. 1955. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6jwnu8Izy0