August 4, 2014

Powerful Presences at the Bread and Puppet Museum

Walking into the Bread and Puppet Museum in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is an uncanny experience: large and small masks and figures crowd the bays and loft of a huge barn, silent yet filled with animated life. It was as though the puppets had imbibed the life force of those who had made them and worn them in performances; it was as though they could begin to move and dance and sing and declaim on their own. My photographs cannot convey the remarkable scale and profusion of these beings, all having taken part in past shows put on by Bread and Puppet. The female figure above, for instance, a "Domestic Resurrection Goddess", reaches from the floor of the barn to the rafters; is that 20 feet? 30 feet? She has a benign, enveloping presence, for me almost like Piero's Madonna della Misericordia, who shelters her followers under her ample cloak.

In another art history reference, writhing figures, many in the pose of a crucifixion, are spread across the ceiling of the barn, a Sistine Chapel for northern Vermont.

All the masks, including these evocative faces which are over 3 feet tall, are made of paper mache over clay sculpted by Peter Schumann, the founder and director of Bread and Puppet. The museum website describes the work process this way:
The vast contents of the museum are the result of a half-century of creativity and hard work, which began in New York City in 1963. Peter Schumann, founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater, is the artist, but the actual production of the puppets in mostly the result of extraordinary communal efforts. A core group of dedicated, experienced puppeteers, joined by friends and neighbors and apprentices build the puppets and the masks, applying layers of paper mache over Peter Schumann's sculpted clay models. And then, using simple materials like cardboard, poplar saplings, and rummage sale clothing, construct figures of impressive size....And since this museum replaces the traditional museum's ideal of preservation with acceptance of more or less graceful and inevitable deterioration, consider making your visit sooner rather than later. 

I loved the different expressions on these enormous, elongated heads, and their rich coloration.

You can get a sense of scale with masks that are displayed with clothing. They are caricatures, yet somehow seem true to life.

This delicate, wistful face was very touching as it was partially hidden by a lace curtain.

The quiet white face and hands float dreamlike between dark sleeping heads.

The figures in this tableau are from the play "The White Horse Butcher", performed in 1975. The black clothing and white faces are graphic and dramatic. It was seeing this that made me think "of course! German Expressionism is a strong influence on this work". Peter Schumann was a sculptor and dancer in his native Germany before coming to the US in 1961. And just as German Expressionist artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann were acidly political in their work, the core meanings of Bread and Puppet performances are also political art at its best: humanist, pacifist, environmentalist, engaged.

They also look at ordinary life, in a room with puppet women engaged in sewing, washing dishes, and ironing.

There are masks that are humorous.....

.....and beasts that are frightening.

As an label explains, "the giant grey fellow is the prophet from "The Fight Against the End of the World", and the women are from "7 Grey Lady Cantatas". The soft expressions of the women are beautiful and calm while their hands are large and expressive.

There is such a feeling of woe and despair in this grouping of dark figures. The rhythms of arms and hands and side-turned heads are like those of dancers, or a Greek chorus.

For me the most beautiful, the most touching, group of figures are these Vietnamese women with their pale faces framed in black. They are from the play "Fire", a very early work from 1968 that was about the Vietnam war. Through all these years, Bread and Puppet Theater has kept true to its vision, and it is thrilling to see the emotional presences that remain after the plays are over.


  1. This is such an exciting post to me. I would love to be able to see this in person. WOW... Thanks for the presentation.

    1. You're very welcome, Lisa; I'm so glad you liked the post.

  2. How moving these puppets are. I am particularly drawn to the photo of the grieving women and those tiny figures in front of them. A fascinating post, thank you.

    1. Thanks, Olga. Aren't those grieving women amazing? I'm happy that the photos are able to convey some of the feelings that the puppets and masks evoke.