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Dead medium: Riviere's Theatre d'ombres
From: (Bruce Sterling)

Source(s): *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

(((This is the last of a four-part series on the camera obscura == bruces)))

(((bruces 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.*)))

page 54

"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."

Bruce Sterling (