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More than a Playbill: 19th-Century Theater Programs as Art at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers

The late 19th century was an innovative time in theater around the world, especially in Paris, where the bohemian culture of Montmartre brought together visual artists, writers, and actors who collaborated to promote each other’s work. The new exhibition “Staging Symbolism: Programs for the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers from September 14, 2013 through February 2, 2014, explores this intertwining creativity among such leading artists as Edouard Vuillard, Felix Vallotton, and Ker-Xavier Roussel, who designed theater programs that not only promoted popular stage productions of the day, but also became an art form of their own.

“Programs, like these, are the only surviving art works related to the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre’s stage productions from the late 1890s, when it produced many groundbreaking and influential works for the first time,” notes Christine Giviskos, the Zimmerli’s Associate Curator of European Art, who organized the exhibition from the museum’s extensive collection of French prints and rare books from the 19th century. “The Zimmerli is very fortunate to have a rich and diverse collection of objects that document these dynamic collaborative projects from Parisian avant-garde theater.”

Founded in the summer of 1893 – by actor Aurélien Lugné-Poe, writer and critic Camille Mauclair, and artist Edouard Vuillard – the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris quickly became the leading venue for innovative symbolist theatrical productions. Like other experimental Parisian theater companies exploring symbolism (first a literary, then an artistic movement), the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre sought to challenge audiences accustomed to formulaic and moralistic plays by mainstream theaters. The theater presented dramas that emphasized characters’ emotional states and confronted social issues. The venue notably staged works by Auguste Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, who both examined the psychological states of their characters and served as precursors to the next generation of groundbreaking playwrights and novelists in the early 20th century.

As a cofounder of the theater, Edouard Vuillard suggested the name “L’Oeuvre” (meaning “work of art”) to indicate that the theater’s close relationship with contemporary avant-garde visual artists was a goal from the outset. He made all of the programs for the theater’s first season and created set designs for several productions. Other artists later seized this opportunity to expand their own creative boundaries, rendering playwrights’ abstract, written ideas into visual form. They welcomed the challenge of not simply reproducing a specific scene from a play, but inventing subjects that synthesized a play’s key themes and psychological atmosphere.

During that first season, Vuillard set the standard for other artists who created later programs. He successfully integrated the symbolist approach to drama – melding actors, movements, spoken words, and stage décor into one expressive whole – into visual form by weaving various formal elements into one harmonious decorative entity. Vuillard’s 1893 design for “Un Ennemi du Peuple (An Enemy of the People),” by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (whom Lugné-Poe was instrumental in introducing to French audiences), is a perfect example: it captured a moment in the play, as well as the tumultuous atmosphere in Paris at the time. His composition alludes to a turning point near the end of the play when the protagonist is declared “an enemy of the people” and a crowd ominously circles around him. The scene also evokes the reality that anarchist activity was at its height in the city – and the production was not exempt from such demonstrations.

Alfred Jarry spent most of his short life (he died of tuberculosis at 34) developing the title character in the play “Ubu Roi (King Ubu),” perhaps the most notorious production in the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre’s 120-year history. The writer supposedly was inspired at age 15, after reading a farce about a disliked teacher written by schoolmates. Jarry eventually expanded the story into a burlesque trilogy (the latter two parts not performed until after his death) that satirizes the power, greed, and complacency of the bourgeoisie. He also created the program for the theater’s 1896 production, which illustrates Ubu as a larger-than-life humanoid, wielding a dragon-like sickle as people bow to him and a house burns. His artwork was almost prophetic of the premiere – and only – performance at the theater, as rioting broke out and the play was quickly outlawed for its vulgarity. Jarry skirted the proclamation by moving it to a puppet theater and, ultimately, Ubu has endured as an iconic antihero. The character has inspired several theatrical and film adaptations within the last decade, as well as highly regarded works by other artists, from Joan Miró’s “Barcelona Series” to Paul McCartney’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

The Théâtre de l’Oeuvre also played a more direct role in the history of art. Ticket subscriptions provided most of the operating support for avant-garde theaters, which offered these programs to their subscribers, who collected the handouts as many theatergoers do today. The Théâtre de l’Oeuvre also collaborated with other publications that forwarded the programs to their own subscribers. This increased the artists’ interest in designing the programs as a way to reach a broad group of arts patrons likely to purchase their other artwork. In addition, because the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre’s programs were produced as lithographs, there was renewed interest in that printmaking medium. This trend in 1890s collecting has provided museums and libraries with a significant number of these works on paper, creating a unique bridge between that moment in history and today’s audiences.

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