Alexandra Jacobs
August 23, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Presented for your approval: an odd little subgenre of American art. Or perhaps art isn’t quite the word for these pictures, crafted to advertise the loony, hyperbolized traveling sideshows of the early to mid-20th century. Rendered in faded but still luscious purples, oranges, and greens, the illustrations exaggerated deformities — as well as ”Hoo-La-La”-type assets — to attract a thrill-seeking, pre-horror-flick public. The taxidermists and sword swallowers were circus profiteers’ bread and butter, but the authors take pains to declare that no one was being exploited here: The ”freaks” weren’t victims, they argue, but resourceful individuals making the most of their afflictions. This is the authors’ only concession to social psychology, however. Freak Show: Sideshow Banner Art is really a look at the beauty and enterprise of false advertising — news of the weird at its bizarre and seamy best. A

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