Theater & art
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    Frame by Frame

    Mind-boggling art of unfettered advertising

    ‘The Spiral Unicycle Ascensionist,’ at Shelburne Museum
    ‘The Spiral Unicycle Ascensionist,’ at Shelburne Museum

    SHELBURNE, Vt. — I have always enjoyed the fanciful phrase “truth in advertising.” Behind its strenuous certitude (“No one will be allowed to fall below our stringent standards!”) is a gleam of ridiculous optimism, like a cheeky teenager trying it on with a favorite teacher (“Honestly, sir! I was just helping her with her six-times tables . . .”)

    Truth in advertising?

    Come off it. Can’t we collectively dispense with the illusion that one should be able to believe the claims of ad men, and return instead to the unadulterated joys of pure baloney?


    This TRULY EYE-POPPING circus poster, created by the Courier Litho. Co., is what I’m talking about. It is on display in the JAW-DROPPING, horseshoe-shaped Circus Building at the Shelburne Museum, in Vermont. The Circus Building, if you haven’t been, houses the ARMPIT-IGNITING Arnold Circus Parade — nearly 4,000 figures built at a 1-inch-to-1-foot scale extending over 500 feet — created by Roy Arnold between 1925 and 1955.

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    The poster, a chromolithograph, was made in 1901 for the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Bros. Circus, and given to Shelburne Museum by Arnold in 1965.

    It is BEYOND DOUBT AND ALL QUESTION the most wonderful circus poster the museum has: ALL PREVIOUS POSTERS ARE SO FAR SURPASSED THAT AFTER THIS IS SEEN THEY ARE ALL FORGOTTEN — although having said that, the competition is thick, and one should not discount, among other EXQUISITE examples, a
    VIRTUALLY PEERLESS poster advertising the “Great Egyptian Bovalapus” — a suspiciously buffalo-like creature shown emerging from the ocean to devour sailors in rowboats.

    If you want to teach your kids about hyperbole and alliteration, the “Minting the Marvel” poster is exhibit A. On the other hand, don’t let all those flourishing F’s and swarming S’s blind you to the poster’s other virtues.

    The placement of the columns of typography on either side of the ascending spiral, for instance, is a simple device, but it means that, as you read the poster’s vertiginous and capitalized claims (so much like art criticism), you experience an echo of the unicyclist’s own ascent and descent.


    Note, too, the subtlety — almost Don Draper-ish (if not PINTERESQUE) in its deadpan, hint-dropping, seed-planting sotto voce — of the casual aside: “Spiritualists have said he is supported by invisible hands.”

    Marvelous! Wonderful!

    Sebastian Smee can be reached at