© Ronald T. Simon
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.
This image of the artist in his grand studio is not unlike the reality of the
Bread & Puppet Theater's Domestic Resurrection Circus, and of director Peter
Schumann's ability to people the landscape with puppets, parades and pageants,
treating the features of the landscape itself and the ever-changing light as
significant elements of a Bread & Puppet performance. With the landscape
treated as both stage and canvas, all the art forms are united, transforming
the environment into a work of total theater. Throughout this vast artistic
conception one unique aesthetic is apparent, an aesthetic carved, painted, and
molded into innumerable surfaces as paintings, wood cuts, sculpture, installation
and theater; an aesthetic engaged in a complicity of humanism and expressionism;
an aesthetic that conjures up images buried deep in our collective, archetypal
memory. One wonders if Nature, herself were she so inclined, would sculpt faces
similar to those of Peter Schumann's.
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.
Ronald T. Simon