Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater
by Ronald T Simon and Marc Estrin
Foreword by Grace Paley
Chelsea Green Publishing 2004
Imagine a landscape as a painter’s canvas—in which pigments of green are swayed by the wind, dampened by the rain, lightened by the sun; a canvas where tiny figures emerge from the distance, changing the surface with their footsteps and filling the foreground with life, gathered to portray all the wonders and cruelties of the comédie et tragedie humaine. Among these figures we find painted archetypes and personified human emotions, and all the muses and demons that guide them. The sky in this canvas is often darkened by a flurry of activity; by the re-enactment of wars, and the suffering they cause. But even as the darkness passes, soft voices are heard singing, rejoicing, and lamenting for the dead. Such a canvas requires an exceptional palette, a palette where every color and every stroke is a metaphor of characters and objects—raw details of a greater artistic endeavor. Imagine then the painter/sculptor before this canvas, his brush the size of a pine tree, the molds for his sculptures the size of mountains.
The prodigious nature of Schumann’s genius becomes apparent in the Bread & Puppet Museum, home to tens of thousands of drawn, painted, and sculpted figures, posed in different gestures of humanity, positions of labor and love, where all the taken-for-granted-everyday objects are revered and the meanings of the gods revealed. Like a paper Pantheon where Aesop has run amok, this museum, located in a lofty old barn, is where these gods linger until they are called for their next rehearsal. Standing out in their godly white dress, they seem completely at ease with Vermont as their stage. We have a wonderful sense that their presence represents the very sacredness that surrounds us and that these paper gods are a reminder that the natural world requires our deepest respect. Many of the photographs presented in this book hope to capture that sense of the sacred by exploring this marriage of Schumann’s art to the natural environment. Schumann’s creations blend, walk, come in line, dance, and perform against a background of forests, rolling hills, green fields, and cloud-filled skies. Occasionally the shape of a cloud mimics the shape of a mask suggesting a more complex relationship between Schumann’s theater and the natural world as the grandest of all stages.
It is important to remember that this framework is subjective and this book is not meant to be an objective document on the Bread & Puppet Theater, but an interpretive one. It is an attempt to identify the phenomenon of Bread & Puppet, with Peter Schumann at the center of that phenomenon. For our purposes this phenomenon is defined as eight archetypal themes (Death, Fiend, Beast, Human, World, Gift, Bread and Hope), which are also vital qualities of the human experience. With Peter at the center of this artistic-archetypal whirlwind, we can almost visualize his numerous creations/ideas spinning about him, only to find instances of a choreographed universe coming together in this chaos. The photographs are thus small parts of a seemingly larger entity and timeframe which invite the viewer to explore what this phenomenon may actually entail.
While defying typical categorization, the elemental power of these archetypes force the viewer to confront the meanings of the objects depicted within the photos beyond a simple theatrical context. The viewer is asked to embark upon a process of visual association of themes that affect our lives more than we might like to admit. In this sense, Bread & Puppet’s sculptural storytelling achieves exactly what it wishes to accomplish: a visual language of figures and objects that propose a plethora of intuitive associations of archetypal or humanistic themes. An important aspect of this artistic approach deals with day-to-day concerns where art becomes an interpretative force and a way of life. Schumann’s aesthetic embeds a basic intuitive essence into the visual surface of his sculpture. This essence can be seen in the angularity of his woodcuts, and in the noses and brows of quickly inked faces; in the generous eyes and mouths of his bas relief sculptures and in the humanistic touch that forms the soft clay features of his puppet populations; in series of small scale paintings that tell stories of individual courage; in the suns that are stamped onto loaves of sourdough rye bread, baked in ovens all over the world, and handed out freely as theater and ritual share bread as a common sacrament.
The phenomenon of Bread & Puppet becomes the distillation of Schumann’s aesthetic into a visual language where the syntax is humanism and the only verb, in a social-political sense, is to act. This language may be identified easily by those who know it as both friendly and thoughtful and those who identify with the cantastoria of kindred souls struck down by injustice. These photographs attempt to identify for the first time this aesthetic as a tangible and humanistic strategy within modern art and theater movements that begins with Bread & Puppet and goes beyond its (western) origins by attempting to join a culture of humanity with this visual language. (c) Ronald T. Simon