French puppeteer and collector. Jacques Chesnais already had a head start as an ex-student of Fernand Léger when he decided, in 1931, to devote himself to his passion for puppets. Up to then Chesnais had made use of his talent as a wood engraver, and had frequented, first, Montparnasse, then during and after World War II, the intellectual and artistic milieu of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. There he befriended Charles Dullin, Edward Gordon Craig, Arthur Honegger, Marcel Marceau, and Serge Lifar.
The characters in his productions were for the most part, designed, sculpted and painted by Chesnais himself, but sometimes they were realized and costumed by the great couturier, Paul Poiret; by Fernand Léger who created the maquettes for his former pupil for the famous Match de Boxe, or Boxing Match, in 1934, created at the Archives Internationales de la Danse, Rue Vital; and by the embroiderer and weaver Germaine Montereau.
Chesnais started by using glove puppets but later abandoned these for string puppets. In 1941, his friend the sculptor Bernard Milleret carved some heads for Chesnais which he (Chesnais) painted and his wife costumed for various circus numbers. He created the Compagnie des Comédiens de Bois (Company of Wooden Actors) using talented manipulators, including his wife Madeleine (1907-2006), giving numerous performances of short variety and circus numbers on music hall stages and in prestigious European theatres. In 1952, Du Coq à l’Âne (From This to That) transported the spectators in the Comédie des Champs-Élysées on an imaginary voyage lasting two and a half hours, which included twenty-two tableaux performed by a hundred and fifty string puppets. Other playlets such as La Pêche Miraculeuse and Le Ballet des Étoiles (The Miraculous Peach and The Ballet of the Stars, 1941) lasted only a few minutes and were accompanied by small musical ensembles. Depending on the circumstances, Jacques Chesnais alternated sketches, ballets, improvisations around a story, and written texts.
Chesnais was also a scholar who throughout his life imparted his knowledge by producing articles and thematic pamphlets on puppetry. His history research was published in 1947 as Histoire Générale des Marionnettes (General History of Puppetry), and his ultimate contribution was to revive a 19th century technique, the paper theatre (also called toy theatre), with the 1972 publication of Les Théâtres de Papier (Paper Theatres). In 1939, he was asked to organize the materials of the collector Léopold Dor for an exhibition at the Musée Galliera. The collection is housed today in the Musée Gadagne (Gadagne Museum) in Lyon. Jacques Chesnais’ own private international collection is one of the finest in the world.
- Chesnais, Jacques. Histoire Générale des Marionnettes [General History of Puppets]. Éditions d’Aujourd’hui, Plan-de-la-Tour, 1980. (Reprint in facsimile of the edition by Bordas, Paris, 1947.)
- Chesnais, Jacques. “Marionnettes Africaines” [African Puppets]. Le Théâtre dans le Monde [World Theatre]. No. 14:5, 1965, pp. 448-451.
- Chesnais, Jacques. Les Théâtres de Papier [Paper Theatres]. Paris : Médecine de France, 1972.