The Morgan Library & Museum kicks off its winter exhibition schedule with several notable offerings, including Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being and Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect.
The former exhibit focuses on the French writer best known for the play Ubu Roi (1896), a stylized parody of greed and power, much influenced by Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear. In the play, Ubu is convinced by his wife to stage a revolution, during which he kills the king of Poland and much of the royal family; the ghost of the dead king calls for revenge. Ubu kills the nobles and taxes the people, becoming, of course, the kind of figure he initially set out to destroy. The play owes much of its notoriety to its opening night, for which it’s especially well-known. During the premiere, riots broke out, and the play was outlawed from the stage; it moved to a puppet theater (the first word spoken is a variation of a French curse word). The play’s influences have been widespread, as a forerunner to Dada, Surrealism, and especially the Theatre of the Absurd.
Jarry, however, had a hand in many art forms in addition to theater, from poetry to novels, operettas to criticism. He is especially well-known for “pataphysics,” his invented science of imaginary solutions. On a more practical level, he was one of the first writers to experiment with visual typography.
The exhibit celebrates the gift to the museum of the books and manuscripts from the Robert J. and Linda Klieger Stillman Paraphysics collection. It also includes works from the museum’s own collection as well as loaned objects—a combination of books, drawings, photos, and ephemera. Figures associated with Jarry or whom he influenced, such as Henri Rousseau and Pierre Bonnard, are also represented. These works remind the viewer of how vast Jarry’s legacy and influence are, especially considering he died at age 34. Viewers will see manuscripts of three poems “after and for” Paul Gaugin, for instance; David Hockney designed costumes for him. Look particularly at his typography, modern even by today’s standards. What emerges from a close viewing is that coupled with a sense of anarchy, there’s also a sense of control. Jarry’s legacy paved the way for the avant-garde that was to pervade the 20th century, offering a link between the old world and the new.
Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), The Great Yawner, n.d. Pen and black ink, brown wash, and red chalk. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Estampes et de la photographie.
Also on view is Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect. Coming to the Morgan from the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the exhibit highlights the work of an architect and draftsman (1757-1826) who is known for incredibly detailed drawings of imaginary monuments as well as (real) buildings. The Morgan is the first institution in New York to offer a selection of these works.
Lequeu’s method was to systematically describe everything he could through his drawings; he created incredible stylized, detailed worlds, all from the shelter of his study. His plans to become an architect never reached fruition, so he became a bureaucratic draftsman. On his own, he produced self-portraits, erotic drawings, and plans for larger-scale monuments, perhaps in response to the drudgery of what he did every day. Many of these works were embellished with characters and stories from his library.
Fueled by the death of the old regime and a vision that moved beyond the bounds of traditional academia, Lequeu’s most astonishing works look like what petit fours might resemble if they were buildings. Both frothy and grounded, they represent the mix of the draftsman and the dreamer. His playful details are also worth noting; on his Geometric Map, which shows a bird-eye view of an imaginary landscape; he “signed” the drawing with a playing card in the lower left. The card is the heart, or “Le Coeur,” a pun on his name. The drawings may have represented a response to his having to redraw many maps of Paris, necessitated by Napoleon’s reorganization of the city.
Both exhibits show the works of artists who were both a product of and an escape from—or perhaps a revolt against—their times, forging ties between the worlds they were leaving the behind and the world that lay ahead.
Both Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being and Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect. Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France run through May 10. For more information, visit themorgan.org.