Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being
On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being
January 24 – May 10, 2020
“After us the savage God,” W. B. Yeats lamented to a friend after an 1896 viewing of Alfred Jarry’s best known play, Ubu Roi.1 Yeats feared the unromantic sensibilities of the next generation of artists in general, but there was also something fundamentally “savage” about Jarry in particular. Writer and friend Rachilde described his 1891 entrance onto the Parisian literary scene “like a wild animal entering the ring.”2 Diminutive in stature, Jarry traversed the city on his iconic black bicycle, hair long and unkempt, clothes held together with safety pins. He was known to carry a pistol, and habitually blurred the line between himself and his character Ubu, a rotund and satirical tyrant that Jarry impersonated during social gatherings. The Morgan Library and Museum’s Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being traces the brief life of this complex individual—he died at only 34 years old—and engages with his work as a playwright, visual artist, designer, performer, and poet. The exhibition gives viewers an intimate view of one of the most dynamic periods in avant-garde art, focused through the activities of a truly enigmatic figure.
Jarry drew from the Symbolist movement of his own time but also made use of a unique methodology involving radical typography,appropriation of found images, and language that mixed profanity with terms lifted from scientific magazines. The legacy of his ideas found new life in Dada, Surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and far beyond. Additionally, his philosophy of ‘Pataphysics—the science of exceptions or imaginary solutions—inspired the founding of Le Collège de ’Pataphysique in Paris in 1948, which boasted such prominent members as Man Ray, Groucho Marx, and Marcel Duchamp.
A significant portion of the Morgan’s exhibition is devoted to Jarry’s most famous creation, Ubu. The show includes gems like a copy of the first publication of the play Ubu Roi, ephemera from the play’s single night performance, and both issues of Jarry’s periodical publication Almanach Illustré du Père Ubu, illustrated by Pierre Bonnard. However, the scope and depth of the collected materials, drawn from a recent gift by Robert J. and Linda Klieger Stillman, is made most evident by lesser-known works and written correspondences. For example, the beginning of the show, which focuses on Jarry’s emergence into adulthood, includes one of his few surviving oil paintings: Le crocodile aux phantasmes (The Crocodile and the Phantasms) (ca. 1894), in which crudely rendered supernatural figures emerge from a gloomy background. Possibly modeled after a wood engraving by Gustave Doré, this work foretells Jarry’s lifelong fascination with the macabre and the monstrous. A letter written that same year to his sister—the only known surviving correspondence with a family member—enthusiastically describes his visit at the age of 21 to the painters’ colony of Pont-Aven, detailing his time with Paul Gauguin, Charles Filiger, and others. The letter, one of several included in the exhibition, reveals a figure who, despite his well-documented eccentricities, built and maintained deep social connections with other artists of his day.
Between framed works and the contents of various vitrines, the first room of the show explores Jarry as art critic, experimental typographer, and coeditor (with Remy de Gourmont) of the symbolist art magazine L'Ymagier. It is an absolute delight to encounter Henri Rousseau’s original painting La Guerre (War) (ca. 1894) as well as a lithograph version he produced for L'Ymagier on Jarry’s request. While little is known about the details of Jarry’s relationship with Rousseau, the exhibition does present us with one very touching letter from the painter to Jarry, assuring the recipient that Rousseau has collected Jarry’s “box of famous actors” (marionette puppets) from his soon-to-be vacated apartment, and reporting that his pet owls are doing well.
Most contemporary encounters with Jarry are filtered through the sensibilities of a postwar counterculture that selectively constructed Jarry as an icon of singular antisocial genius. His ideas, when referenced by later figures, were often framed as inward-looking, rather than collaborative. For example, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann described his own practice, which drew significantly on Jarry’s ‘pataphysics, as “a constantly self-renewing control circuit.”3 The Morgan Library’s show, however, presents us with a different vision of Jarry that emphasizes connection and resonance. One indication of the broad impact Jarry had on the history of art can be seen in the impressive array of works received on loan for the exhibition: pieces by Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, and Marcel Duchamp are all on view.
What makes this exhibition truly notable, however, is its commitment to tracing and illuminating the multifaceted relationships Jarry cultivated with his contemporaries. Far from the mythology of an artist outsider, this exhibition shows the many ways that that artist positioned himself at the center of creative production during his time. Seen in this light, Jarry bears little resemblance to Yeats’s “Savage God,” toiling alone in the wilderness, far from civilization. Instead, the works collected in The Carnival of Being suggest a visionary who was recognized as a gifted, if at times exasperating, individual, one who led a life with rich social connections and artistic collaborations. It would, perhaps, be best to describe Jarry’s body of work as chimeric or monstrous, in that it emerged from a volatile mixture of ideas, both historical and decades ahead of their time. Jarry himself might find that description agreeable, as he once observed that, “It is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of dissonant elements. … I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty.”4
- William Butler Yeats. Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1980), 348.
Roger Shattuck. The Banquet Years: the Origins of the Avant- Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 194.
Tobia Bezzola and Roman Kurzmeyer. Harald Szeemann—with by through because towards despite: Catalogue of All Exhibitions 1957–2005 (New York: Springer, 2007), 208.
Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 186.