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Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama.

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama

Jewish Museum, New York

December 2, 2005-April 2, 2006


Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) has returned to New York and reclaimed center stage. The fascinating multi-media exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum illustrates her extraordinary career as actress, international celebrity, and icon of style through 250 objects ranging from stage costumes to Art Nouveau posters to photographs and film clips to Bernhardt's own sculpture. The exhibition, co-curated by Carol Ockman and Kenneth Silver, examines the Bernhardt myth, focusing on her media-based celebrity and the dualities and contradictions that shaped her life and art. That myth is encapsulated in the puzzle postcards of Bernhardt performing her signature roles that, when assembled, display her larger-than-life image as L'Aiglon.

Bernhardt's dual identity (illegitimate daughter of a Jewish courtesan, but baptized Catholic) and her meteoric ascent to international stardom played out against the heightened nationalism and anti-Semitism that exploded with the Dreyfus Affair. Despite her iconic status as France's leading actress, she was attacked in vicious anti-Semitic caricatures and tracts such as Marie Colombier's libelous Memoires de Sarah Barnum (1883). A fervent Dreyfusard, Bernhardt wrote to Zola the day after "J'Accuse" appeared, extolling him for his courage. Her role in La Samartaine, in which she converts to Christianity, and the Hebraic lettering in Alphonse Mucha's poster reference her Jewish heritage. Eighty years after her death, Bernhardt remains a potent symbol of high dramatic art and modern celebrity. Warhol's 1980 silkscreen portrait, based on a Sarony photograph, archival clips of her pioneering films, and more recent films in which she is evoked testify to her lasting fame and continuing influence.

The lavishly illustrated catalogue that accompanies the exhibition includes essays by Ockman, Silver, Janis Bergman-Carton, and Judith Levitov that examine Bernhardt's reach, the theatrics of French nationalism and the Dreyfus Affair, her intense engagement with the decorative arts, and dueling contemporary perceptions that complement and contextualize the objects on display. (1) Billed as the first major museum show devoted to Bernhardt, the New York exhibition follows on the heels of the immense Bernhardt exhibition staged at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, in 2000-2001. (2) The particular strengths of Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama lie in the extraordinary quality of the objects assembled, the broad range of media represented, including film, advertising, and memorabilia, and the focus on Bernhardt as an avatar of mass culture. (3)


The installation begins with Marilyn Monroe's breathless homage to Bernhardt in The Seven Year Itch (1955), connecting her to the Hollywood dream factory and the modern celebrity cult. The potency of the Bernhardt myth is distilled in her embroidered handkerchief, which has been passed down as a precious talisman. The first section of the exhibition showcases Bernhardt's extraordinarily varied theatrical career and her riveting stage presence. Highlights include an inscribed skull presented by Victor Hugo to commemorate her performance in Hernani, the spectacular Art Nouveau jewelry she commissioned, and the mesmerizing photographs Nadar took just before she became a star, which capture the passion and smoldering sexuality that captivated the public for more than sixty years. Bernhardt, who became a fashion icon, took an active role in designing her costumes both on and off stage. The richly embroidered cape and bejeweled eagle crown she wore in Theodora conjured the gilded splendor, exoticism, and decadence of Byzantium. A discerning patron and early proponent of Art Nouveau, Bernhardt commissioned innovative posters and dazzling jewelry, such as the pearl-incrusted Diadem for La Princesse Lointaine, designed by Mucha.

Although a few key paintings, such as Georges Clairin's mythologizing portrait of Bernhardt reclining (1876) are included, the exhibition focuses primarily on reproductive technologies and media--lithography, photography, and ultimately film, which promoted Bernhardt's performances and disseminated her image to a mass audience. Photography became the principal means for recording her roles and transmitting her image and mystique beyond the confines of the stage. More than seventy photographs--documenting her most famous roles, Phedre, La Dame aux camelias, Theodora, her sumptuous home on the Boulevard Pereire, and her American tours--are displayed, attesting to the central role of photography in framing the Bernhardt legend. In Melandri's famous photograph of Bernhardt Posing in Her Coffin, the actress spoofs her own death, which she so effectively reenacted night after night on stage.


The exhibition brings together a particularly rich array of posters, including the complete series Mucha designed for Bernhardt in the 1890s, which mark the apogee of the Art Nouveau poster. Indeed, the filiforme Art Nouveau woman was modeled after Bernhardt, who made Mucha's reputation and fortune overnight when she commissioned him to design the groundbreaking intricately patterned poster for Gismonda (1894). Bernhardt's image was also used to market more prosaic products from cosmetics to boeuf bouillion, as evidenced in Cheret's poster for Le Diaphane, Poudre de riz Sarah Bernhardt (1890), and anonymous trading cards advertising Extrait de viande, featuring Bernhardt as L'Aiglon (1900), reminding us that branding has a long history.

Bernhardt's role as artist, patron, and arbiter of style is amply documented in the exhibition. An artist as well as an actress, she painted and sculpted when she was not performing. In the Fantastic Inkwell (1880) she depicts herself in the guise of a sphinx with bat-like wings. A genius at self-fashioning and self-promotion, Bernhardt's own image was perhaps her finest creation. In 1889 Le Figaro reported that tourists came to Paris to see the country's two most memorable silhouettes--the newly constructed Tour Eiffel and that of Sarah Bernhardt. As the exhibition underscores, Bernhardt became a veritable one-woman artistic industry, creating a highly eclectic image bank or musee imaginaire that perpetuates her memory. The ornate standing mirror featuring her defiant motto, "Quand meme" [No matter what, or Against all odds], is symptomatic of her lavish and eclectic taste and her unlimited ambition.


If Bernhardt continues to fascinate, it is perhaps because she appears prophetic in her synthesis of high and low art, attention to image management, and brilliant exploitaiton of the mass media from photography to advertising. Equally renowned for her performances in Racine's Phedre and Sardou's historical melodramas, she was an international celebrity and dramatic institution on both sides of the Atlantic, visiting the United States nine times between 1880 and 1917. The first major actress to embrace film, she died while filming La Voyante in 1923. The exhibition celebrates both Bernhardt's amazing career and the power of images and the media to propagate myths.

Heather McPherson,

University of Alabama at Birmingham

(1.) See Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Jewish Museum, New York, 2005); 122 color and 73 black-and-white illustrations.

(2.) See Noelle Guibert, ed., Portrait(s) de Sarah Bernhardt (Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale de France, 2000), published on the occasion of the exhibition "Sarah Bernhardt, ou le divin mensonge," 3 October 2000-14 January 2001.

(3.) That follows the line of argument in Heather McPherson, "Sarah Bernhardt: Portrait of the Actress as Spectacle," in The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 76-116. The chapter focuses on Bernhardt's use of photography to disseminate her star image.
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Author:McPherson, Heather
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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