From the Vault:
“New” Circus – in 1929
In 1929, the Union des artistes (Artists’ Union) organized its 7th annual gala to support the Union’s social work and raise money for a retirement fund dedicated to artists who received only a small government pension, or none at all. Famous as well as early-career circus artists were regulars at these galas, and Gaston Desprez provided access to the Cirque d’Hiver for the occasion.
The program for this edition was illustrated by Marthe (1879-1962) and Juliette (1881-1949) Vesque, two illustrators from the Museum of Natural History who had been fascinated by circus arts ever since they were children. They had spent their free time at the circus for almost thirty years, attending performances at different venues around Paris and drawing pictures of the various acts. They are said to have sketched in the dark and in the cold, sitting in the top row, before working on their drawings some more when they got home, adding watercolors, combining the initial sketches with their visual memory. The great precision of their lines combined with the fluidity of the movements – which are represented in a stark, minimalist way on the page – mean these illustrations have unique artistic and documentary value (the Vesques made over 8000 sketches and drawings).
This selection of their drawings was accompanied in the program by texts written by young journalist and advertiser Louis Merlin (1901-1976). Merlin was also a circus aficionado, and a founding member of a charity named La Piste, created in 1924. Its aim is to support circus performers through difficult times. Merlin’s short texts, humorously presented as encyclopedia entries, elaborate on the various circus acts and the risks taken by the performers through poetic descriptions – sometimes with a touch of irony, but always imbued with admiration.
7th annual gala of the Artists’ Union, Cirque d’hiver (Paris), Petit répertoire du cirque, 1929