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Apollinaire and Puppets

The very engaging exhibition on Apollinaire at the Orangerie, Paris, which ends on 18 July 2016, will attract anyone interested in that marvelous poet and percipient art critic. However, like the Klee exhibition currently at the Centre Pompidou, it also contains a few items which may, to the ignorant, be unconsidered trifles, but which are snapped up by us. As an information panel puts it, photographs reveal that in Apollinaires Paris apartment avant-garde paintings rubbed shoulders with African fetishes and puppets. A display alongside contains, among other artefacts of popular culture, three wooden figures (a woman, a gendarme and Mephistopheles) from Apollinaires collection which are described as Aunt Sally dolls (jeu de massacre). On the other side of the room are three Father Ubus. One is a very expressive, largish, wooden, painted hand-puppet, the figure illustrated in the three-page article Brunella Eruli devoted to Jarry in the very first issue of Puck (1988), and which, along with the rest of the fascinating collection of mainly French puppets which were held in the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Neuilly, is, since the latters closure, to be found in MUCEM (Musée des civilisations de lEurope et de la Méditerranée), which opened in Marseille in 2013 (see photographs of the puppet on the site below). Eruli wrote that Jarry carved the head of this Ubu. Would not seek to dispute he carved a head, but, while no expert at all here, am not sure that he was responsible for this actual figure: neither its old nor new home seems to make that claim, though you would expect them to, but I could always be wrong. However, the other two, smaller, much rougher figures in the exhibition are, interestingly, captioned Jarry(?). Perhaps? One hopes so. Anyway, Apollinaire met the bicycle-riding nihilist Jarry in 1904: they shared an interest in popular imagery, which Jarry and his co-editor, Remy de Gourmont, promoted in the pages of LYmagier (printed on a handpress in de Gourmonts own Paris flat, 9 Rue de Varennes). Père Ubu and the poet have since become boon companions on the art circuit: when I first went to see this puppet in Neuilly, in 1993, I was met by an empty case and the explanatory notice: lent to the Apollinaire Critique d’Art exhibition.

You can also see in the current exhibition a photograph of two puppets carved by the Smolensk-born artist Marie Vasillieff: it shows a bearded Matisse (under whom she studied) and Picasso separated by an African sculpture, which was also very much in vogue with the avant-garde at the time. Theres a postcard, too, of an Italian childrens theatre showing seven rustic types who make up the reapers chorus (il coro dei Mietitori), on the bill with Puss in Boots.

If you suffer from puppetry tunnel-vision, no doubt the exhibition does not contain enough of the woodentop tribe to make a detour worthwhile, but for me at least the puppets provided a very pleasant and unexpected entracte.

Robert Fowler - June 2016

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Pelham Puppets by David Leech

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