I’ve been an inveterate collector of postcards ever since I was a child, so it was probably inevitable that when choosing a favorite piece in Echoes of Japan: The Prints of Henri Rivière (1864-1951) (on view through January 1, 2012) I would pick … a set of postcards. Not just any old postcards, though – this set, which I found still in its original wrappings when I was going through SBMA’s holdings of Rivière’s work last fall in preparation for this exhibition, is special by the standards of any day.
Rivière started his career as a designer of shadow plays for Montmartre’s Cabaret du Chat Noir. This form of entertainment – a precursor of the motion picture – consisted of a series of tableaux created by figures cut from sheets of zinc paraded across a backlit painted cloth. Accompanied by music and spoken narration (usually provided by the cabaret’s flamboyant owner, Rodolphe Salis), these plays proved so popular that Rivière and an enterprising publisher found a way to provide people with a tangible memento of these fleeting shadows – in the form of books (three of which are also featured in this exhibition), individual prints or, in the case of The Journey toward the Star, sets of postcards. Although I could only display the books open at a single page, the postcards – laid out like a series of animation cels – gave me the luxury of being able to convey the entire plot of a single play.
If you’re interested in experiencing what it might have been like to watch a shadow play, be sure to come to the museum on November 6. We’ll be screening The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the oldest surviving animated film, whose silhouette technique is directly inspired by the Chat Noir’s shadow plays.
Henri Rivière (French, 1864-1951), The Journey toward the Star, 1890. Set of fourteen postcards (lithographs). SBMA, gift of Sara and Armond Fields.