thematique

Hand Shadows[Also called Ombromanie]

Country

A shadow theatre technique using hands of the actor. This can be accompanied with or without accessories made of cardboard, zinc cutouts or other objects. Following the position of the hands, characters or animals appear on the screen.

Since time immemorial, the game of projecting shadows onto a wall by using a candle or lamp has amused children during family gatherings and provided a fantasy real enough to pass the time. But in Europe it only became a full-fledged show in its own right at the start of the 19th century thanks to the Italian Campi, the Frenchman Théo R. and the Englishman Trewey.

Born in 1868, Théo (Théodore Revel) performed an “eccentric number” in concert-cafés using hand silhouettes (see Cabaret). He attracted renewed attention to the genre by animating shadows, putting them on stage in small playlets. In Les Silhouettes à la main (Hand Silhouettes), the puppeteer revealed his secrets, offering instructions for positions to hold, possible movements, and, made visible to the reader, illustrations showing the arm, hand and finger positions and the shadow thus obtained. He also developed pantomime scenarios at the end of his shows. As for the Englishman Trewey, he was famous for his recognizable portraits of statesmen and celebrities, such as Tsar Alexander III, Bismarck and Émile Zola. He is recorded as having created over three hundred figures. His shows were greatly prized at the Alcazar on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Hand shadows were also referred to in “Franglais” as: “Shadowgraphie”.

One of the oldest books dealing with hand shadows was published in China in 1790. Among other illustrated publications dealing with this topic dating from the 19th century is Lights and Shadows on the Wall by Frank Fireside, which was edited in London by Read and Co. in 1859. Victor Effendi Bertrand wrote Les Silhouettes animées à la main (Animated Hand Silhouettes) in 1892 while he was director of the Théâtre du Palais-Impérial. Edited by Charles Mendel in Paris, it is one of the most interesting books on the topic, as much for its explications as for its illustrations. Small chromolithographic advertising cards of the 19th century, made for Bon Marché, the novelty shop “Au musée de Cluny”, for Suchard chocolate and for Guérin Boutro, were also used as postcards in 1900, happily showing hints and tips on hand shadows. However, few hand shadow performers have remained in popular memory. Dodok supposedly made appearances in cabarets, casinos and concert-cafés between the two World Wars, and has left behind a golden postcard where one can see him creating Napoleon’s shadow. In their book, Les Théâtres d’ombres (Shadow Theatres, 1956), Denis Bordat and Francis Boucrot named three hand shadow performers from this period: Carolus, Chassino and Riffalo.

Professional hand shadow shows today are very rare in the West but may be part of children’s or tourist entertainments in China, Korea, or other places in Asia. However, a few must be mentioned, such as the work of Bulgarian director Nikolina Georgieva who performed Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals (Karnaval na Jivotnite) in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1968, using this technique. Today, hand shadow works are no longer fashionable in music halls (see Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville).

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