RIVIERE'S THEATRE D'OMBRES
Source: *The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905* edited by Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996 LC 95-81835
Bruce Sterling remarks:
This wonderful book, which draws on the obviously extensive holdings of the Zimmerli Art Museum, was published to accompany a "Spirit of Montmartre" art exhibition. The book contains five long art-historical essays, plus two appendices and a bibliography.
It is rare for us in Dead Media Project to quote so extensively from a single work, but it is impossible not to admire Phillip Dennis Cate's magisterial treatment of the Chat Noir cabaret's "shadow theater." This is dead media scholarship at its finest! We have a provocative media thesis, which proposes an alternative geneology for cinema: not in cameras and persistence-of-vision optical toys, but in French black and white silhouette illustration. This impulse moves through drawings, to photomechanical printing, through puppet theater, and, finally, into a now-forgotten gigantic 20-man media gizmo in the most notorious dive of Bohemian Paris--the Chat Noir "theater of shadows" of Henri Riviere (1864-1951). Cate's article offers names, dates, shadow-theater plot summaries, and enough technical detail so that a determined hobbyist could probably re-create Riviere's shadow-theater out of klieg lights, curtain runners and tin cans.
What we in Dead Media do *not* have in this series of quotes from Cate are the many compelling illustrations in this book, which emerge straight from the heart and gizzard of Lautrecian fin-de-siecle French poster art. The art in this book is stunningly effective. As a substantial bonus, one can learn the personnel, histories, and countercultural intrigues of a panoply of Bohemian avant-garde cults, including the Hydropaths, the Incoherents, the Bon Bockers, the Fumistes, the Hirsutes, the Zutistes, the Decadents, and others even less probable. Dead media just doesn't get much better than *The Spirit of Montmartre.*
Please note that ASCII mutilates the French language, so that Riviere is Riviére, Epopee is Epopée, La Conquete de l'Algerie is La Conquête de l'Algérie, and so forth.
"In the nineteenth century, guignols, or puppet-theater performances, were popular, domestic forms of family entertainment; one could also regularly encounter groups of small children watching Punch and Judy puppet shows in the public gardens of the Luxembourg and Tuileries.
"In the fall of 1885 George Auriol and Henry Somm constructed a small puppet theater in the Chat Noir's third-floor Salle des Fetes. (...) the performances were not for a children's audience. The setting of Somm's one- act *Berline de l'emigre* is a family-run public toilet. (...) This silly play, with its childish overindulgence in toilet habits and its sequence of *fumiste* puns, in- jokes, and racial slurs, is echoed sixteen years later in Jarry's second *Almanach du Pere Ubu.*
"The guignol existed a relatively short time at the Chat Noir before it was converted to a shadow theater, another traditional form of family entertainment. After one of the early performances of *La Berline de l'emigre,* Riviere put a white napkin over the opening of Somm's puppet theater; then, after making small cardboard cutouts of policemen (*sergents de ville*), he placed them behind the white screen, creating silhouettes that he moved across the screen as Jules Jouy sang his popular 'Chanson des Sergots.' This was the birth of the Chat Noir's famous shadow theater."
"It was not by chance that Riviere discovered the shadow theater. The climate was certainly right for investigations into the artistic effects of silhouettes. Thanks to the newly developed photomechanical relief- printing processes, which easily and inexpensively reproduced high-contrast black-and-white drawings (...) artists and writers of the Chat Noir group were collaborating on publications related to Riviere's aesthetic interests.
"Less than two months earlier, Paul Eudel, who by coincidence lived directly across the street from the Chat Noir, published his important study on shadow plays entitled *Les Ombres chinoises de mon pere* (*My Father's Shadow Theater,* Paris, Editions Rouveyre, 1885.) Cohl and Ferdinandus, Chat Noir regulars and Incoherents, created many of the silhouette illustrations for the book. Riviere was obviously aware of Eudel's publication just as he was surely aware of Henri de Sta's humorous books, such as *La Chanson du colonel* (*La Chanson du colonel, operette pare Albert Millaud et Hennequin, Paris, Leon Vanier, 1882) which were illustrated by de Sta entirely with silhouette images.
"In addition, Georges Lorin's *Paris rose* of 1884 (*Paris rose*, Paris, Paul Ollendorf, 1884) innovatively incorporates silhouette images within the text to suggest movement from one page to the next. Lorin's dynamic placement of silhouettes, in fact, predicts the effect, ten years later, of celluloid frames of a moving picture, as well as the bold black-and-white book illustrations of Vallotton. (*Rassemblements,* edited by Octave Uzanne, Paris, Paul Ollendorf, 1884, features thirty illustrations by Vallotton.)
"These publications by his Chat Noir colleagues introduced Riviere to the artistic potential of silhouettes and motivated his investigations into the shadow theater as a modern medium. Most important, the shadow theater was able to merge the two-dimensional aesthetics of the visual arts with characteristics intrinsic to theater: movement and the interaction of music and voice."
"Somm's soon-to-be-famous thirty-second shadow sketch *L'Elephant* (...) was created almost immediately after the first performance of *La Berline de l'emigre.* Salis used this short, comic, scatological skit daily until his death in 1897 to introduce the cabaret's shadow-theater performances:
"No set; a lighted screen.
"A Negro, his hands behind his back, is tugging on a rope. He advances, disappears--the rope stretches horizontally. Then, a knot in the rope. The rope continues to stretch, eternally.... Then, at one end, therea appears an Elephant who drops 'an odoriferous pearl'--in the words of the Gentleman Cabaret Owner--from which a Flower springs up--then: Curtain!
"By 9 December 1896, when Jarry performed *Ubu Roi* at Montmartre's Nouveau Theatre, Somm's *Elephant* had been performed at least four thousand times."
"It was not until 1887 that Riviere replaced Somm and Auriol's puppet theater with a real shadow theater. To do this it was necessary to break through the main wall of the Salle des Fetes and construct a screen and rear staging area. At first the screen measured almost one meter square. Eventually, it was enlarged to 1.12 meters high by 1.40 meters wide with a huge backstage attached to the outside of the building.
"Essentially, Riviere created a system in which he placed silhouettes of figures, animals, elements of landscapes, and so forth, within a wooden framework at thre distances from the screen: the closest created an absolutely black silhouette, and the next two created gradations of black to gray, thus suggesting recession into space. Silhouettes could be moved across the screen on runners within the frame.
"For instance, perspective was created by a succession of large to small silhouettes placed across the screen. The silhouettes were at first made from cardboard and then, in 1888 with the first full-scale production of Caran d'Ache's *Epopee,* from zinc. Behind the three tiers of silhouettes were sliding structures supporting glass panels, which could be painted in a variety of transparent colors; and finally, at the rear of the work area was the oxyhydrogen flame, which served as the light source.
"With the help of backstage assistants who could number as many as twenty, the perfectionist Riviere was able to develop complicated and sophisticated effects of color, sound and movement for the series of over forty eclectic plays that he and his colleagues produced during the eleven years that the shadow theater existed at the Chat Noir.
"The Chat Noir closed in February 1897, a month before Salis's death. It left no greater legacy than Riviere's shadow theater, which was the cabaret's biggest public attraction. From the very beginning, Salis was the improvisational narrator, or *bonimenteur* of each shadow performance. His eccentric, egocentric personality gave the performances added verve and excitement.
"In 1887-88, the year after the shadow theater became fully established at the Chat Noir, Auriol published *Le Chat Noir--Guide,* which, with Incoherent annotations, lists the art on display in this cabaret-museum. With the following contemporary artists represented on the Chat Noir walls, one may assume that Riviere's shadow theater played a crucial role in establishing the credibility of the cabaret with that other tier of the avant-garde, the Impressionists/Post-Impressionists: Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, and others.
"The three most popular shadow theater productions were *L'Epopee* (1888) by Caran d'Ache, and *Le Tentation de Saint Antoine* (1887) and *La Marche a l'etoile* (1890), both by Riviere. It was Riviere who facilitated the technical requirements of all the plays produced at the Chat Noir.
"In some cases the demands were extraordinary, especially when productions such as *L'Epopee,* *La Tentacion,* and *La Conquete de l'Algerie* (1888) by Louis Bombled called for forty to fifty different sets, or if they required subtle effects of color and movement such as *Phryne* (1891) by Maurice Donnay.
"Georges Fragerolle, Albert Tinchant, or Charles de Sivry were most often responsible for the musical scores. The plays were varied in content; Caran d'Ache created a seriocomic monochromatic vision of Napoleon I's military campaigns in *L'Epopee,* which included dramatic perspective views of the Grand Army. Riviere's Symbolist- religious play *La Marche a l'etoile* evoked with minimalist tints of blue the mystical procession of believers to Bethlehem to worship the newborn Christ, and Donnay's *Ailleurs* was a 'poeme satirique, classique, gaulois, mystic, socialiste et incoherent'
"The *fumiste* character of the Chat Noir was maintained by such plays as *Le Gils de l'eunuque* (1888) by Somm, *L'Age d'or* by Willette, *Le Secret du manifestant* (1893) by Jacques Femy, and *Pierrot pornographe* (1894) by Louis Morin.
"The forty scenes of Riviere's *Tentation de Saint Antoine* visualize the odyssey of the hermit saint as the Devil presented him with myriad contemporary and ancient, worldly and other-worldly temptations, including present- day Paris represented by Les Halles (the meat market) and La Bourse (the stock market), science, and new technology, the awesome universe, a variety of ancient deities, and the seductress queen of Sheba. Quotations from Flaubert's novel of the same name were recited and accompanied by selections of music by Richard Wagner, Fragerolle, and Albert Tinchant. The play reaches its crescendo with the apotheosis of the saint after he successfully rejects all temptations.
"*La Tentation de Saint Antoine* was the Chat Noir's first major shadow theater production. Its premiere performance on 28 December 1887 took place eighteen months after it was first announced in *Le Chat Noir.* It must have taken Riviere that long to develop the ability to obtain the great variety and nuance of color as well as the spatial effects that distinguish his adaptation of the traditional shadow theater concept from all those who went before his."
"However, it was also Riviere's sophisticated technology that made the Chat Noir's protocinematic productions ephemeral. While zinc silhouettes and preparatory studies remain today, it is only be means of the printed, color facsimile albums of plays such as *La Tentation de Saint Antoine,* *La Marche a l'etoile,* *L'Enfant Prodigue (1894), and several others published at the time, and by means of the decorative programs designed by Auriol and Riviere that we can come close to understanding the content and visual impact of the Chat Noir's shadow plays."
"Over the years, thousands upon thousands of individuals viewed the Chat Noir's shadow theater productions: bohemians, aristocrats, politicians, generals, and members of the bourgeoisie sat side by side in the Salle des Fetes with artists, writers, actors and actresses, scientists, and adventurers.
"Beginning in 1888 with the Theatre d'Application on the rue St. Lazare, shadow theaters eventually spread to other locations in Paris as well as to other Montmartre cabarets, Le Conservatoire de Montmartre and Les Quat'z'Arts, in particular. In addition (...) Salis took his shadow theater company on the road to the provinces. In 1893 Somm, Steinlen, and Michel Utrillo traveled to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago to present their shadow plays. Thanks to Utrillo, by 1897 Barcelona's avant-garde (...) had its own shadow theater at Ils Quatre Gats, the *modernista* cabaret that took its name from both Le Chat Noir and Les Quat'z'Arts. (During the Paris world's fair of 1900) the journal *Le Rire* brought Montmartre shadow theater and humor to visitors around the world by installing on the fairgrounds along the Seine the Maison du Rire, which performed a repertoire of Chat Noir shadow plays and cabaret revues."
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