A Summer of Shadow Art

Last summer, we went on our first out-of-state tour, taking the shadow show Saudade to six different venues in Minneapolis. This summer, we haven’t performed any shadow work, but I did have the opportunity to see three very different shadow and silhouette based pieces of art in DC and New York City.

Back in the spring, we performed Saudade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary and historical silhouettes called Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. While I knew a little about the history of silhouettes, mainly that they were an inexpensive form of portraiture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was interesting to see more complicated compositions, such as this depiction of a magic lantern show by Auguste Edouart.

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A silhouette of a magic lantern show in the 1800’s cut by Auguste Edouart.

One of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibit is Kristi Malakoff. Much of her work involves the transformation of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional artwork and her piece in the exhibit is this beautiful three-dimensional silhouette sculpture of children around a maypole.

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Kristi Malakoff’s silhouette sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2016, we had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that presents artists from all over the world. We performed as part of a section of the festival about migration, titled On the Move, but most of the festival focuses on particular regions or countries around the world. This year, the Smithsonian presented artists from Armenia and Catalonia, including several kinds of puppet artists. The Ayrogi Shadow Theater is a group of performers who travel around Armenia performing shadow puppetry. They trace their traditional storytelling back to the 1830’s and in contrast to more complex and colorful shadow puppets found in the region, use a simple style of puppet made from cardboard or leather.

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Shadow puppets by Ayrogi Shadow Theater from Armenia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Finally, I was able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City while I was there for work in early August. I’m very familiar with the DC museum but had never had an excuse to visit the Heye center in New York, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House downtown. I went primarily to see a new exhibit about Taino Heritage and Identity, but I also happened upon a set of rooms titled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Of course transformation is at the heart of all puppetry, and I was especially moved by the piece The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw). The box sits in the middle of the room and the shadows it casts stretch to fill the entire floor and walls so that the viewer walks through and disrupts them as they move around the space. It was an immersive experience that I’m still thinking about. If you have a chance to see the exhibit before it closes in January, I highly recommend it.

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The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw) at the American Indian Museum, NYC. 

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A Few Puppeteers You May Not Know

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.

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.