Alfred Jarry Celebrated in Philadelphia
By Maria Goldverg
posted: 04-18-11
Alfred Jarry, Thomas Chimes, 1978 at Locks Gallery
Image Source

The first of April marked the opening of The Insolent Eye: Jarry in Art at Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. Beautifully curated, it fulfilled its promise: "to recreate the beguiling atmosphere of Jarry's absurdist scenarios" and ground them in a "historical prologue." In other words, the exhibit centers around the re-imagination of the 'Ubu landscape' by contemporary and modernist artists such as Pablo Picasso, Thomas Kentridge, and, our personal favorite here, Marcel Duchamp.

The work ranges from comical illustrations of the Jarry's infamous masked and grotesque Pere Ubu, lead in the absurdist play that propelled him to fame in fin-de-siecle Paris, Ubu Roi. Jarry's style would quickly became synonymous with avant-gardism, spurring countless imitations and responses. Jarry was renowned for his irreverent escapades (he was known to appear in the streets of Paris in slippers, a fur tiara, a ripped up overcoat, armed with a stick and revolvers): after one of which he is said to have mused, "isn't it as beautiful as literature." Marie-Claire Groeninck notes in the exhibit's catalogue essay that it is in those instances, in which Jarry's personal life would become indistinguishable from his art, that became precursors to Duchamp's ready-mades. Oddly enough, though none of Duchamp's ready-mades made it into the show, his Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even and Green Box did.

The relation between Jarry and those two particular pieces is not as explicit as it is with many of the other works there. Actually, it is rather tenuous. Groeninck explains that Duchamp and Jarry socialized and worked in the similar circles, and consequently Duchamp must have been familiar with Jarry's oeuvre. So, when Man Ray photographed The Bride Stripped Bare together with the accumulation of three months worth of dust, and Duchamp decided to incorporate it into the sculpture, Groeninck suggests that it is likely he did so knowing of this particular line written by Jarry years earlier, "'tiny little gray boots, with even layers of dust carefully preserved on them, at great expense, for many months past.'" Groeninck does cite another instance of overlapping discourse between the two, this time concerning how you might interpret the watch as an object stripped of its use-value as an indicator of time.

As limited as these examples may be--and perhaps they are only limited because they, incorrectly, posit a strictly diachronic relationship of 'inheritance' between Jarry and Duchamp, while a more porous understanding of their work would have been prudent--the curation remains illuminating. Andre Gide had poignantly written of Jarry's influence, "the surrealists, later, never invented anything better, and it is with justice that they recognise and salute in him a precursor." Whether Gide was right or not--it is worth a visit to Locks Gallery to find out and, more importantly, to remember how it felt to read Ubu Roi that very first time.

The Insolent Eye: Jarry in Art runs through May 13th.

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