A decorative art in its own right

1. A fully-fledged decorative art

The generic term “Fairground arts” brings together a wide range of concepts: the utilitarian, the decorative, the naïve… By being intended for the masses, these unsophisticated concepts have categorized Fairground Arts as Folk Art, considered by most as inferior to Fine Arts.

Yet the details, sophistication and artistic approach behind fairground arts tend to demonstrate the opposite. Showmen designed their rides and stalls as real entertainments, decorative and theatrical techniques and calling upon great artists to amaze the crowds.

From this perspective, Fairground Arts are a legitimate branch of Decorative Arts, displaying a unique power of attraction conveyed by decorating, adorning, embellishing to entice and bewitch.

Fairground arts were influenced by all artistic movements, yet found originality in transposing and mixing styles: antique, neo-classical, baroque, romantic, symbolism, realism… Through this combination of universal and local traditions, Fairground Arts renewed the traditional artistic styles with a unique form of playfulness. The dazzling result was used by showmen to create an extravagant and baroque atmosphere calling on a flamboyant, luxurious, subtly libertarian and explicitly nostalgic imagination.

2. The Fairground architecture

The frequent assembly and disassembly of fairground attractions required a specific architectural design involving lightness, sturdiness and simplicity of assembly. These three principles can apply for all types of fairground stalls, booths, merry-go-rounds and rides.

Those constructions aimed at attracting, consequently carpenters, carvers, metalworkers, mechanics and painters had to work closely together to hide the structural and engineering components to the public.

The result is uniquely baroque, mixing decorations, techniques (carving, moulding, painting) and materials.

Fairground architecture is highly inspired by classical themes and styles, revealing the artists’ awareness in contributing to a monumental art form.

3. Wood carving

Wood carving played a central role within fairground arts. The amount of carving and the volume it creates was used to enhance to monumental aspect of the trompe-l’oeil architecture. It is indeed the undeniable quality of wood carving on roundabouts and booths that provided fairground arts with their recognition.

Sculptures on fairground rides and attractions are always representative, with more or less realistic depictions of animal and human figures being inspired by reality, myths or imagination.

Traditionally these wooden sculptures were hollow and made out of softwood, in order to facilitate their handling and transportation. They often featured polychromy, gilding, and glassware ornaments to enhance their decorative and baroque aspect.

4. Bas Relief

Wooden bas-reliefs were used to create a transition between the three dimensional sculptures and the flat painted surfaces.

This carving technique was used to decorate façades and rounding boards, circling painted medallions and mirrors. Similarly to sculptures, the friezes, scrollwork, foliage and rocaille ornaments of those bas reliefs were enhanced with polychrome paintings and gold leaf.

The presence of bas-relief on all architectural features contributed to the typical visual and artistic overload of Fairground Arts.

Similar patterns were often repeated to accentuate the visual rotation of roundabouts, along with twisted brass poles.

4. Painting

Painted decorations are a traditional features of fairground roundabouts, rides and booths.

They decorated the ceilings, rounding boards, crown center and façades, canvases, wooden and metal surfaces with decorative or representative themes.

The painting technique used by artists is somehow similar to wall painting: flat smooth layers, simple and refined designs and more vivid colors compared to the traditional pastel tones.

Representative themes generally included allegories (wealth, abundance, seasons), mythological figures (gods, angels..), exotic landscapes or pastoral sceneries.

Painters worked in workshops or directly on fairgrounds to create or touch up existing painted decorations. When creating a new painting, artists generally painted over the existing decorations. It is therefore frequent to observe of a single panel, a piling up of layers from different styles and different times.

5. Artistic schools and styles

Fairground sculptors were highly skilled and talented, the precision of their carving demonstrated their own style and characteristics enabling an identification of various artistic schools specific to fairground arts : the French school, the German school, the Belgian school and the British school.

a. The French school

When it comes to fairground arts, the French school is generally attributed to the Angers-based wood-carver Gustave Bayol. It features highly realistic animal depictions with well-balanced lines in a general classical style. The realism is also conveyed by the simplicity of carousel figures’ ornaments. Hence French horses generally have simple halters and flat saddles.

French merry-go-round are traditionally designed around a scenario with a themed decoration and featuring only one type of figures: cows, pigs, cats or even herrings roundabouts spread during the Belle Epoque.

The French fairground architecture is defined by well codified rules including monumental classical figures, repetitive patterns with an overall considerable attention to details.

b. The German school

Similarly to the French school, the German school is generally expressed through the depiction of animal figures, Freidrich Heyn being one of the major artists. Animal featured on merry-go-rounds – horses, cows as well as exotic lions and giraffes – have in common a certain dignity with highly elaborated ornaments enhanced with bronze or gold rosettes and vivid paintwork. Unlike the French realistic and simple designs, the German school stresses the ornamental aspect. Yet both schools demonstrate a common attention to anatomical precision, including visible muscle structure on German horses.

In contrast, the German bas-reliefs are more stylized and architectural elements present less depth and details.

c. The Belgian school

Similarly to Gustave Bayol in France, the Belgian school was mostly influenced by one of the most important 19th century fairground carvers: Alexandre Devos.

His style was impregnated with the Flemish, baroque culture with references to the Antique; his talent being mostly expressed through monumental statues. From the 1890’s, his outstanding allegorical designs were the highlight of Salons Carousels façades.

Other sculptors following Devos’ style such as Jules Moulinas were also influenced by Fine Arts and incorporated Art Nouveau elements to this baroque profusion.

The evolution of carousel figures is a common pattern with Belgian and French carvers. In the 1940’s Van Guyse in Belgium and Henri Devos (son of Alexandre) in France both started designing cartoon-inspired figures for adults and children.

d. The British school

The British style differs from other European schools by a more advanced stylization of patterns and an outstanding research in graphic design. Fairground artists and makers are also great inventors : Savage designed the first steam-powered mechanical roundabouts in the 1850’s; Orton & Spooner – one of the major manufactory – created the first merry-go-round centaurus depicting famous politician from the 1900; Anderson invented extremely large figures, contributing to the British manneristic style.

From 1925, the British fairground artists – famous for their stylized patterns – adapted the trendy Art Déco to Fairground Arts. As a consequence, the three dimensional sculptures and embossed design were gradually replaced by ornaments inspired by graphic art.

 


Published on 09.01.17