a guide to puppetry 2: the shadow-puppet

Of all the puppet arts, shadow-puppetry, conjured out of light and darkness, is the most mystical. Even the origins of shadow-puppetry are rooted in tales that emphasise the art as being one in which the screen represents the thin membrane between the spirit and corporeal worlds.

In the Javanese shadow-puppet tradition of Wayang Kulit, the word for the shadow-screen is Kelir, and just as the puppet-master is obscured from the audience by this fragile veil, it’s believed that the ‘mover of the world’, the Jagatkarana, is hidden from mortal sight by the screen that separates the planes of existence.

Wayang Kulit puppets are fashioned from skin or parchment, intricately perforated so that the characters appear to glitter, and beautifully decorated with paints in rich colours that are not transferred to the shadow images. Traditionally the puppet-masters greatly valued their puppets, and the painted decoration was an expression of esteem for the figures.

Above: behind the Wayang Kulit screen.

The Chinese tradition of the shadow-puppet is similar to the Indonesian in terms of hide construction, though the material is shaved thin so that it’s translucent and can be stained with colours to enhance the shadow-play. The faces of the Chinese puppets are often cut so as to be presented as outlines, with the features delicately delineated.

Much attention is given to the cutting of complex patterns to represent lavishly woven textiles. The Chinese shadow-puppet tradition is said to date from the reign of the Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty. When his favourite concubine died, he ordered his court officials to bring her back to life. An articulated ‘puppet’ in her likeness was made of donkey-skin, and the concubine was conjured for the Emperor by means of moving lamps projecting her puppet-shadow onto a screen.

Shadow-puppetry is an enchanting medium. Performed outdoors at night, with music and the soft glow of lamps, the performances can be mesmerising as the shadows shimmer and waver, coalescing and vanishing in an abstract blur of shape and colour.

Above: Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. (1926)

In the West the film-maker Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981) drew inspiration from eastern shadow-theatre traditions, using the medium of silhouette-puppetry to produce animation for the camera.

Above: Prince Achmed on his flying horse.

In 1926 her film The Adventures of Prince Achmed was one of the first animated features, and it’s as fresh and imaginative today as when first released. (This extraordinary woman invented a multi-plane animation-table a decade before the Disney Studios followed her lead.)

Above: Reiniger’s hands at work moving one of her shadow-puppets between shots.

Reiniger’s filmography is impressive. Working mainly with fairy tale as her subject matter, she was active up until 1979. Today her work is clearly referenced by the new generation of paper-cut artists who look to her as the greatest of the silhouette-cutters.

Above: contemporary shadow puppet using textile to embellish a wonderfully creepy yet elegant apparition.

Contemporary artists and shadow-puppeteers continue to draw on rich traditions that have survived the centuries and are still enchanting and mystifying audiences. Here are just a few images of contemporary shadow-play that I hope will inspire those who have signed up (or may yet sign up) to the Artlog Puppet Challenge. Get cutting!

23 thoughts on “a guide to puppetry 2: the shadow-puppet

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  5. What an interesting article, thank you. Please, does anyone know where the original is of the photo of the puppet of the concubine and the emperor (6th photo in the above article). Is it from a museum somewhere? If anyone can shed any light on this I would really appreciate it. thank you.

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  13. oh this post is MAGIC!!
    i really love these, what a fabulous idea, even though i’ve been obsessed with the idea of making something 3D, when i see these…. oh, i’m in love! and that creepy, creepy skeleton!! reminds me of your mari!

  14. I love the delicate quality of the Lotte Reiniger images. Exquisitely fine work. I don’t think I’d have the patience for such detailed cutting. I hope someone does though for the challenge.

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