Ancient puppets that have survived the test of time are rare, being normally sculpted in soft, perishable wood or in fragile clay. Moreover, the particular status of the puppet in society, at least as regards Europe, and its marginal place in the history of theatre, has not helped in the preservation of these objects, especially since the notion of documenting the heritage of theatre arts in general, and of puppetry in particular, is a fairly recent one.
We know the names of a few puppeteers from the past, but we are often ignorant of the craftsmen who built the puppets or who sculpted the heads (see Carving and Carvers, Sculpture). This traditional craftwork was close kin to that of the making of toys and other trinkets for children, but was marked by a long history of anonymous craftspeople. We know, for instance, that the puppeteer Francesco Campogalliani called on the services of Saccomanno, carpenter and puppet builder, and that in Novara a certain Uliotti built heads for the company of the Lupi and the Colla families, while in Emilia, it was Frebbosi who distinguished himself in this field.
This habit of ignoring the material element of the puppet had an impact on its conception. It was in time reduced to an object bereft of aesthetic ambition, until the moment when it became a source of inspiration for avant-garde artists.
The Turn of the Century
Although in the 19th century, texts for puppet theatre were sometimes illustrated by celebrated engravers (for example, in 1865 Gustave Doré illustrated the Pupazzi of Louis Lemercier de Neuville), it would not be until the turn of the century that the puppet would become a favoured subject for experimentation within the plastic/visual arts. The collaboration between plastic/visual artists and puppets was formed, in fact, in the context of a global revival of theatre and the arts: with Symbolism, the idea of theatre as an evocation, rather than an imitation of the real, asserted itself. The puppet, stylized and disembodied, became the ideal actor in this revival extolled by Maurice Maeterlinck and Edward Gordon Craig. The introduction of visual artists into the theatre accompanied a change in the vision of the theatrical event, conceived from that day forward as a fusion of image and speech.
In France we know the influence exerted on the revival of the theatre by the Nabis painters, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Paul Ranson, Ker Xavier Roussel, through their collaboration with Lugné-Poe’s Maison de l’Œuvre, these same painters having also collaborated with the composer Claude Terrasse and the writer Alfred Jarry at the Théâtre des Pantins on the figure of Ubu, while the draughtsmen Henri Rivière and Caran d’Ache with their drawn and cut-out figures for the shadow theatre, brought renown to the Le Chat Noir cabaret. From the beginning of the century in Germany, the theatre and the art cabarets welcomed visual artists, as in the case of the Marionettentheater Münchner Künstler (Marionette Theatre of Munich Artists) created by Paul Brann in 1906 and the Shadow Theatre of Schwabing (see Schwabinger Schattenspiele) under the direction of Alexandre von Bernus (1907). In 1911, in Vienna, then at the height of the Secession, graphic designer and painter Richard Teschner created the Goldenen Schrein (“Golden Shrine”), a little theatre for puppets (inspired by the Javanese wayang golek), which he would animate until 1932 (see Wayang).
The 20th Century
After World War I, the influence of artists on the theatre in general, and on the puppet theatre in particular, became more important: in the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer, with his Figural Cabinet, reimagined the human body as a mechanical form, “puppetized”, as Pablo Picasso had done for the costumes of the Managers in Parade (1917). Among the Dadaists who created dolls, there figured George Grosz (who would also make puppets for The Good Soldier Švejk – original Czech title: Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik During the World War directed by Erwin Piscator in 1928) and Sophie Taeuber-Arp for The King Stag (Italian: Il Re Cervo, 1918) after Carlo Gozzi, while Kurt Schwitters wrote a play for the shadow theatre. In Russia, in 1918-1919, a collaboration was formed between Alexandra Exter and Lioubov Popova and the two Efimovs (see Nina Simonovitch-Efimova), puppeteers who, since 1917, had worked with Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1918-1919, Michel Larionov and Natalia Gontcharova designed the silhouettes and sets for the Théâtre des Ombres Colorées (The Theatre of Coloured Shadows) in Paris for La Marche funèbre sur la mort de la tante à héritage (Funeral March for a Rich Aunt), based on a musical score by Lord Berners written in 1914. Iliazd crafted glove puppets for his play L’Âne à louer (Donkey for Hire) in Paris in 1923, while, in the same year, El Lissitzky published some prints in Hanover representing “electro-mechanical” figurines for the Russian Futurist opera Pobeda nad Solntsem (Victory Over the Sun) by Alexei Kruchenykh and Mikhail Matyushin, for which Kazimir Malevich had already created sets and costumes in 1913.
From 1910 to 1920, the puppet was thus perceived as a mechanical body, liberated from any obligations of imitation or verisimilitude, a source of artistic invention, of which the Balli plastici (“plastic ballets” or “Plastic Dances”, 1918) of the Futurist Fortunato Depero represents one of the more noteworthy examples. Similarly, the Mechanical Dancing Figure and the “plastic spectacle” project by Vilmos Huszár, showed a “Mechano-Dancer” (1922?, 1926) comprised of geometric forms alternating with human forms and abstract constructions. For his Circus (1927), Alexander Calder built figures out of wire, manipulated directly or with the help of wires and rods, inventing a micro-theatre, with unpredictable movement, somewhere between chance and mechanics. The idea of a contorted and geometrical body was taken up again by Fernand Léger, who built a “Cubist Charlie Chaplin” for his film Ballet mécanique (Mechanical Ballet, 1924) and who, also in 1924, built puppets for Charles Chenais’ Match de boxe (The Boxing Match). In the same years, the dolls of Hans Bellmer or the mannequins of Salvador Dali’s Taxi pluvieux (Rainy Taxi, 1937: also known as Mannequin Rotting in a Taxi-Cab, a three-dimensional art work in which an actual taxi and two mannequins representing a female passenger with lettuce and chicory growing around her and live snails crawling across her, and her shark-headed chauffeur; a system of pipes causes “rainfall” within the taxi) presented, for the artists, an erotic and surrealist declension of the puppet.
The puppet, by virtue of its construction from cheap, crude, or reclaimed materials, already proclaimed a new aesthetic (Pop Art, Arte Povera) that affirmed itself also in the domain of the plastic/visual arts. Paul Klee made puppets out of everyday, reused objects and applied the same technique in some of his paintings (his Self-Portrait, for example, was conceived from a butcher’s bone). Other artists used raw materials or reclaimed objects in their canvases, creating a visual language centred on materials. Starting in the 1950s and up until the 1980s, the encounter between plastic/visual artists and the puppet was a very fertile one. Jean Tinguely created his Metamatics in the tradition of the “machines célibataires” (“Celibate Machines”) of Marcel Duchamp.
In 1977, Joan Miró painted directly onto actors, who, in this way, became puppets, as in the costumes and the masks of Mori el Merma (Death to the Tyrant) for Joan Baixas’ Catalan company La Claca. The collaboration of Enrico Baj with Massimo Schuster’s Théâtre de l’Arc en Terre (Ubu roi, 1983, Iliade, 1988) is one of the most successful examples of the participation of plastic/visual artists in the puppet theatre. Tadeusz Kantor, for whom the importance of mannequins would have in his theatre is well known and who had already used puppets in a show in 1938 taken from Maurice Maeterlinck’s La Mort de Tintagiles (The Death of Tintagiles), reprised this production in 1987 with The Machine of Love and Death, in which the witches were played by destructive and ruthless mechanical puppets. Beyond his best-known productions, Kantor also produced short theatrical pieces, which he called “cricotages”, “happenings”, one of which, Une très courte leçon (A Very Short Lesson, 1988), was performed with the students from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in Charleville-Mézières.
Digital technologies have formed new alliances with puppetry. The dematerialization of the actors’ bodies, projections, the possibility of controlling the image on stage with cables brings the puppet closer to current research in digital technology. Pierrick Sorin in his Théâtres variables (Variable Theatres, 2000) or the video interventions of the Canadian Denis Marleau, Les Trois Derniers Jours de Fernando Pessoa (The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa, 1997), erase the physical reality of the actor who becomes, instead, a type of screen for projections, in a process that reminds one of the shadow theatre. We find this same tendency in the productions of the South African William Kentridge, painter and puppeteer, with the Handspring Puppet Company. He uses different artistic media (projections, drawings, actors, puppets) in the style of their production of Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997). In this way, the puppet can become a visual means for building bridges between different forms and artistic languages.