An elephant’s capers: behind the circus poster by Claude Kuhn

Circus Knie had some of the best poster designers working on its advertisements. In addition to designs by Herbert Leupin and Hans Erni, there is also a circus poster by Bernese designer Claude Kuhn that features a particularly agile elephant. Kuhn’s design career now spans more than four decades.

By Isabelle Kirgus

Entering the ring

“Knie. Das Original”, poster, 1996
© Claude Kuhn

Seemingly weightless, an elephant jumps through a hoop and plunges headfirst into the abyss – a leap beyond space and time. For a brief moment, the massive creature leaves its podium and floats in the air. This was once the highlight of a visit to the circus, for audience members both young and old – when the elephant entered the ring! 

Circus Knie prohibited the use of elephants in its shows in 2016. But before the curtain closed on elephant performances, Claude Kuhn honoured them in a poster that he created in 1996, which portrays the portly beasts in a graceful light. The elephant’s circus act – obediently making its way around the ring or briefly standing on its hind legs – takes a joyful and unexpected turn. Just like a tiger, the elephant jumps through a ring of fire – depicted on the poster as a minimalist yellow disc. The elephant is shown as a master of agility and even seems to be smiling – embodying the artistry of an acrobat and the joy of the circus.


“Knie. Das Original”, poster drafts and sketches, 1996 (photo: NL, Simon Schmid)
© Claude Kuhn

These visual jokes and twists on reality are lifelong hallmarks of Claude Kuhn’s work – and likely contributors to his success. Kuhn was an ideal poster designer for Circus Knie, even though he unfortunately only created one for this particular client. Kuhn was very much at home when designing in a world of wonder and magic.

His poster for Circus Knie underwent several revisions that serve as a good example of his method. Kuhn placed various shapes in dialogue with one another on a well-defined coloured background. He tried out three variations with three different animals: a design with a zebra jumping through the disc-like hoop didn’t make the cut, and he also eliminated a variation with a black seal that was almost swallowed up by the background. The elephant emerged as the clear winner for this particular poster design. 

The structure of the poster and the placement of the text was done in a way that allows “Knie” – the name of the circus – to be read across a three-part print or self-contained within one poster. 

Repeat performance

“Die grosse Knochenschau. Der Elefant ist ein Zehenspitzengänger”, Natural History Museum Bern poster, 2005
© Claude Kuhn

Kuhn’s posters are home to a veritable zoo, and his animal designs appear in a variety of different contexts: the frog and the hare, the snake and the moth – and of course the elephant, which had various starring roles in Kuhn’s body of work. Elephants are exotic compared to central European fauna, and Kuhn’s careful designs acknowledge the special significance of these creatures.

His exhibition poster for the Natural History Museum Bern shows the lumbering giant as an elegant ballet dancer, walking on its tip toes like an acrobat – which indeed means “walking on tiptoe” in Greek. We can only assume that the ballet-dancing elephant of Kuhn’s museum poster and the dynamic jumping elephant of Kuhn’s circus poster are closely related. Anything is possible in Kuhn’s universe, and the visual impact is guaranteed.

Kuhn – also known as a “juggler of shapes” – celebrates his 75th birthday in 2023.

Claude Kuhn (born in Bern in 1948) attended the Schule für Gestaltung Bern from 1964–1968 and completed training to become a visual merchandiser. From 1969–1971 he studied scenography and graphic arts at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, and from 1971–1972 he studied scientific drawing at the Schule für Gestaltung Zürich. From 1972 on, he worked at the Natural History Museum Bern and was also a freelance artist and art director/guest lecturer for art and design at the Universities of Applied Sciences in Bern and Lucerne. Kuhn was the recipient of various national and international awards. In 2017, he donated his archive to the Swiss National Library’s Prints and Drawings Department, including his complete portfolio of poster designs and other materials such as original sketches and flyers. Today the archive consists of around 330 posters and poster drafts as well as artistic graphic designs and flyers; works are continually being added.

Bibliography and sources

Last modification 08.08.2023

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