There are twelve photographs taken in 1854 and 1855 about a myth of the Commedia del’Arte, romanticism, modernism and world cinematography. In the images you can see two heads of expression. An actor of the time represents the character of Pierrot in different situations. The Orsay Museum, from Paris, exhibits them until next Tuesday in the exhibition Adrien Tournachon, Nadar and the mime Deburau. Readers can search for, find, and appreciate them on the museum website. If they do, film buffs, particularly those specializing in the French Occupation period, will realize that they have before them the source of inspiration for actor Jean-Louis Barrault, director Marcel Carné, and poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, to create the character of Baptiste in the film children of paradise (1945), based on the life of the great actor and mime Jean-Gaspard Baptiste Deburau (1796-1846). That film was considered for decades one of the ten best of the 20th century. In the photos the one who posed was not that Deburau, creator of a much more nuanced version of Pierrot than the one from the 18th century. The model for these shots was Charles Deburau, son of Jean Gaspard Baptiste, also an actor and mime, who took up his father’s updated vision. Let’s go by parts.
Félix Nadar (his real surname was Tournachon) was one of the pioneers of photography as an art and of flight (he made and flew balloons, predecessors of the famous and tragic Bismarck airship). He took the first aerial photo. In it, Jules Verne was inspired to write the novel Five weeks in a balloon.
Nadar became famous as a portraitist of the great 19th-century French men of letters: Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Émile Zola, among others. His younger brother, Adrien, became as good a photographer as he was. For a while they were partners, then they parted ways, fell out with each other, and reconciled. There is a good part of Adrien’s production that is attributed to Félix, because they shared the same pseudonym, Nadar. Adrien called himself “Young Nadar”. The exceptional photos that he took of Charles Deburau were for a long time part of the lot that was wrongly awarded to Félix. The complete set on display belonged to the collection of the mime Alexandre Guyon, who had worked alongside Charles Deburau and Paul Legrand on The Three Pierrots. That explains why there are photos of Legrand next to those of Charles in the set.
Deburau Sr. composed a being full of energy, in the style of those created by the Italians in the eighteenth century, but, at the same time, due to his powerful stage presence, he was also more imposing and reflective, without ever ceasing to have the traditional buffoonish, absurd, malicious and scatological streak of the paper, as pointed out by George Sand. That contradictory mix of nuances made the character more interesting and human. Although Charles Deburau maintained his father’s version after his death, the slender figure of the son, the delicacy of his features and his hands, contributed to accentuate the lyrical performance.
The later Pierrot was the fruit of a series of misunderstandings by the critics, poets and writers of romanticism and decadence, who were inclined to what could give rise to a languid and pensive Pierrot, in love with the moon, with his white stripped clothing full of adornment, victim of love, sprinkled with anguish, modern. That vision gave rise to the lunar Pierrot, by Albert Giraud and Arnold Schoenberg; Also Baptiste and Pierrot created on the screen by Jouvet, Carné and Prévert; and admired by François Truffaut, Marlon Brando and Truman Capote.