So yes, technically March was Women’s History Month and now it is April. Too bad, we’re still going to highlight three women puppeteers from around the world that you may not have heard of before. These women worked in very different forms of puppetry but each was a trailblazer in her own way.
Hand Puppet by Lola Cueto from the International Puppetry Museum.
You’ve probably heard of the painter Frida Kahlo, but a less familiar artist from the same era is Maria Dolores Velasquez Rivas (1897-1978), better known as Lola Cueto. She studied at the Academy of San Carlos along with the muralist David Alfaro Siquieros but her education was interrupted by the Mexican Revolution. She eventually became one of the few prominent women artists in Mexico at the time, taking her inspiration from Mexican folk art such as ‘papel picado’ and wooden children’s toys. Cueto lived in Paris from 1927-1932 where she first began creating hand puppets. After returning to Mexico, she founded several different puppet companies that performed educational shows for children. Cueto’s work can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, the Brooklyn Museum and various puppetry collections.
This may surprise fans of Snow White, but Walt Disney was not the first person to create a full-length animated film. So far as we know, that was Lotte Reiniger, a German silhouette artist and puppeteer who created The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926. Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger combined her love of Chinese shadow puppetry and film into groundbreaking animated shorts and eventually feature length films that showcase her detailed shadow cutouts. She began by creating silhouettes for title cards and short sequences in live-action films and then gradually progressed to creating her own full-length work. Reiniger and her husband continued to create films even as they moved around Europe during World War II, eventually settling in England, where she died in 1981. You can see footage of Reiniger’s work, as well as an interview with her and a sequence she inspired in one of the Harry Potter films here. Below is her absolutely delightful short about Papageno, from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
Cueto created hand puppets and Reiniger silhouettes; now we turn to marionettes and Gretl Aicher, the artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theater from 1977 until her death in 2012. Aicher inherited the theater from her father Hermann, who in turn had taken over from his father Anton. Trained as a sculptor, Anton Aicher founded the theater in 1913, so Salzburg has been enjoying these marvelous performances for a century. Today the Salzburg Marionette Theater employs a staff of 12 puppeteers and over 500 puppets, and performs operas, ballets and children’s plays both in Salzburg and all over the world. Under the leadership of Aicher, they have collaborated with the Salzburg Festival, as well as various international festivals. When asked in a 2004 book about the theater why ‘a life with marionettes,’ Aicher replied “For me, it is the process of empathizing with mind and soul, of feeling at one with the music and movement that bring these much-loved creatures to life.” Cueto and Reiniger would probably agree.