Puppets and Avant-Garde: Picasso, Depero, Klee, Sa...

Puppets and Avant-Garde: Picasso, Depero, Klee, Sarzi at Palazzo Magnani, Reggio Emilia

After L’età inquieta, an interesting exhibition which ended last March, Palazzo Magnani presents another exciting, original show, Marionettes and Avant-garde. Picasso, Depero, Klee, Sarzi. The new exhibition, masterfully curated by James M. Bradburne, member of the scientific committee of the Foundation and director of Pinacoteca di Brera, focuses on the puppet theater from the twentieth century, highlighting how important avant-garde artists used marionettes and puppets in order to transform theater from a show directed by actors to a total art form created by directors. It was precisely the avant-gardes who rediscovered the poetry and strength of puppets and marionettes, reinterpreting them and reviving that puppet theater born in the mists of time, which has told stories for over two centuries. Puppets and marionettes enchanted illustrious figures such as Heinrich von Kleist who saw in the latter not only a «symbol of grace but of another dimension of existence… the last chapter in the history of the world, free from the weight of conscience that weighs on man».

“Marionette e Avanguardia. Picasso · Depero · Klee · Sarzi”, installation view at Palazzo Magnani, ph Alessandro Meloni

For the occasion, the Reggio Emilia palace is transformed into a fascinating and enveloping stage in which the visitor, as soon as crosses the threshold set up with Victorian wings, is involved in an imaginative and all-encompassing narrative. In the large atrium on the ground floor, the exhibition opens with the impressive and colorful costumes designed by Picasso, worn by the protagonists of Parade (two managers, a horse and a Chinese magician). The provocative ballet which can be considered a manifesto of theatrical cubism, produced by Sergej Djagilev’s Ballets Russes, set to music by Erik Satie, scripted by Jean Cocteau, was staged in Paris at the Théatre du Chatelet in 1917, causing great scandal. The circular staircase that gives access to the upper floors, thanks to small sculptures of cats and mice resting on the ground designed by Fortunato Depero which project their silhouettes onto the adjacent walls, offer those passing by an evocative shadows theater.

“Marionette e Avanguardia. Picasso · Depero · Klee · Sarzi”, installation view at Palazzo Magnani, ph Alessandro Meloni

In the first room, Depero’s futurist puppets are exhibited, designed for Stravinsky’s Le chat du Rossignol and for Balli plastici (1918), then accompanied by avant-garde music that so thrilled Marinetti. On the central wall, stands the emblematic phrase by the actor-director, Gordon Craig: «The actor will have to leave, and in his place will come the inanimate figure the Uber – Puppet we could call it, at least until it has earned a better name». The quote, extrapolated from the famous essay The actor and the supermarionette published at the beginning of the twentieth century in which the English artist hoped for a pure form of theater where the absence of man would be made up for by the marionette capable of placing the theater in a dimension without a trace of feeling and human emotion in favor of a total art, reiterates the autonomous role of a puppet theater with its own specific identity. Continuing, displayed on the walls, we find some drawings by Depero and the enigmatic paintings by Carrà, inhabited by mannequins placed in metaphysical spaces in which man, absent, has been replaced by objects that summarize the concept of depersonalization, caused by traumas due to the atrocities of the Wars and the advent of the technological era. The mannequins without limbs and organs end up becoming symbols of the artistic movement of the same name and will in fact be chosen by de Chirico, Savinio, Sironi, its well-known exponents.

Anonymous photographer, Richard Teschner in front of and inside the “Golden Sanctuary”, undated, Vienna, Theatermuseum © KHM-Museumsverband, Theatermuseum

In the same room, Ten Futurist puppets by Prampolini placed on a circular base in which famous caricaturized characters such as D’Annunzio, Mussolini, Giolitti, Vittorio Emanuele III, but also the Devil and Fascism can be recognized, reveal another aspect that fascinated the artists who worked with this art form; that is, the possibility of giving life to ambiguous, irreverent objects, but also of being able to freely express ideas, make complaints and satire through other characters who become filters and mediators. Furthermore, in Reggio Emilia, the creations by Richard Teschner also stand out, an exponent of Viennese Expressionism, a skilled puppeteer and set designer, illustrator and creator of beautiful clothes for puppets operated with a central rod whose strings were able to simulate accurate movements, even facials. Teschner worked in this way, taking inspiration from the Gianese stick puppets introduced into Europe thanks to the fascination with Orientalism that was rampant at the end of the 19th century. A fairy-tale and visionary inventiveness that we find, albeit with completely different traits, in the incredible marionettes created by assembling spheres, cylinders, cones, by the Dada-constructivist artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp for the eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte Re Cervo by Carlo Gozzi in an unprecedented version revisited in a psychoanalytic key by Morax and Wolff, which sees Freudanalytikus and his assistant, doctor The Oedipus Complex, complete metamorphoses using the strength of Uberlibido. By Arp, who was also a writer, dancer, textile designer, costume designer and set designer for the Cabaret Voltaire, we find pieces of extraordinary modernity on display, in line with her entire work capable of influencing contemporary creatives over time, as it was evidenced by the quote to the artist made in the Fendi 2015-2016 campaign.

“Marionette e Avanguardia. Picasso · Depero · Klee · Sarzi”, installation view at Palazzo Magnani, ph Alessandro Meloni

At Palazzo Magnani it is also possible to view a large section that delves into the experiments of the Russian avant-garde and the Bauhaus: some Klee puppets made by the artist for his son Felix between 1916 and 1925 with recycled material such as rags, matchboxes and plaster (the Scarecrow Ghost, the Crowned Poet, and even a self-portrait puppet) and the works dominated by geometric figures by Oskar Schlemmer who took over the direction of the Bauhaus Theater starting in 1923. The invention of Triadic Ballet is owed to him, who studied man in relation to the prismatic and abstract space of the stage. Schlemmer’s theatrical man related to space using disguise, costume and mask, reaching a sort of abstraction thanks to a synthesis of the human body through solid figures such as the cube, the cylinder and the sphere in order to improve and overcome one’s capabilities and limits. A large section is also dedicated to El Lissitzky and the drawings for Victory over the Sun, a futurist masterpiece staged for the first time in 1913 at the Luna Park theater in St. Petersburg with sets by Malevich (on this occasion the iconic black square appears , which later became a symbol of Suprematism) where strange figures (warriors, an aviator, an attacker) defeat the Sun, immersing humanity in a regenerating darkness in which everything is possible (symbolizing the revolt against an obsolete past tradition). A tribute in the exhibition is also paid to the period of the Russian Revolution: Nina Efimova and her husband, the sculptor Ivan Effimov, became the first professional puppeteers in Russia, founding the first repertoire of puppets for children. In 1919 they held performances on the streets of Moscow at workers’ clubs, in factories, in hospitals, in asylums, in stations, based on a vast repertoire (Andersen, Shakespeare, Pushkin) mainly focused on historical and patriotic themes, contributing to that educational role much encouraged by Lenin and his wife aimed at fighting illiteracy and at the same time training new Soviet citizens.

Otello Sarzi Madidini, puppets for “Il Pelo”. Farce within the show “What I think about you”, 1968, fabric, color and moving eyes, 70 x 10 cm each, Reggio Emilia, Fondazione Famiglia Sarzi, photo by Laura Zanoletti and Vincent Giordano

Closing the journey: the “political” puppets by Otello Sarzi, partisan, anti-fascist, experimenter from Reggio Emilia, who worked with Munari and Loris Malaguzzi, psychologist and important figure in the pedagogical field. Palazzo Magnani, thanks to the collaboration with the Carlo Colla puppetry company from Milan and the 5T Association based in Reggio Emilia, offers visitors a vast program of short shows and performances during the weekends interpreted by puppetry professionals who will perform on two stages, helping to «open a space to the imagination in which – as James M. Bradburne glosses -a stick can become a horse, a dragon or a flute again».


Marionette e Avanguardia. Picasso · Depero · Klee · Sarzi
17/11/2023 – 17/03/2024
Palazzo Magnani
Corso Garibaldi, 31 Reggio Emilia


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