a guide to puppetry 3: the marionette – part one

Above: Marionettes from The Detroit Institute of Arts’ Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection
Number three in the Artlog series of ‘Puppet Guides’, is on the subject of marionettes. The definition of a marionette is that it’s a puppet worked from above by means of strings. The control bar for a marionette can be horizontal or vertical, though the latter is the more usual design for professional marionettes. This illustration shows typical horizontal and vertical controls for stringed puppets.
Another type of control that went out of fashion long ago in the UK but continues in mainland Europe, has a rigid control wire to the puppet’s head, with strings attached only to the hands.
A traditional Sicilian marionette (see image above) has a metal rod to its head. The puppet’s sword-arm is also controlled by a metal rod to better support the weapon that can be inserted into its clenched hand. A feature of Sicilian puppet shows is that the armour-suited puppets energetically fight, and marionettes are often rigged for decapitation and the severing of limbs. When a Sicilian marionette stage is filled with fighting puppets, the clamour of their clashing armour, shields and swords can be deafening.
Above: the body count rises in a Sicilian marionette performance
Such puppets are invariably heavy, but heft lends swing to the legs when operated by experienced puppeteers, creating the swaggering gait typical of the marionettes. The puppets of the Royal Toone Theatre in Brussels that I wrote about at the Artlog last year when I visited the theatre, are also operated by single metal rods to their heads.
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Above: puppets at the Royal Toone Theatre in Brussels. It’s typical of this type of performance that the hands of the puppeteers can be seen by the audience, especially from the front rows of seating
Marionettes are usually carved from wood, as weight is important to give them a sense of gravity. (Marionettes that are lightweight often appear unattractivley bouncy, whereas the heavier puppets have a sense of grace and dignity that comes from smooth operation.)
Above: Harlequin marionette, Richard Barnard, late 19th cent.  V & A
Given the fantastic flowering of the plastic arts in the nineteenth century, and given that puppet-makers were reproducing what they saw at the theatres, circuses and music-halls of their day, to look at a marionette of the period is to be transported to the past. We may not be able to sit in an audience and marvel at an elaborate Victorian Harlequinade from a Drury Lane pantomime, but when confronted with the marionettes that so meticulously conjure one, we get a very good idea of how the performers of the time appeared.
Below: clown marionette from the Tiller-Clowes troupe, 1870s – 1890s. Victoria & Albert Museum

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Marionette construction is often elaborate, as the joints have to be engineered both for robustness and smoothness of movement. Because the puppeteer is so distant from the figure, a marionette requires a particularly deft operator, as the performance has to travel from the control bar, down through the strings and into the puppet. The further a puppet is from a puppeteer, the more room there is for things to go wrong.

Below: these charming cowboy and cowgirl puppets were made by Gustave Baumann, a German artist and puppet-maker born in 1881. He lived in Santa Fe for most of his life, and his puppets are housed in the New Mexico Museum of Art
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But stringed puppets can be simple too, and when designed and carved with the skills of Czech puppet-maker Jan Ruzicka, or Sota Sakuma… a Japanese puppet-maker working in Prague… the results are a sheer delight.
Above: marionettes by Jan Ruzicka
Below: owl puppet made by Sota Sakuma
Marionettes can be enormously sophisticated, both in appearance and in terms of the number of strings and what can be achieved with them. The puppeteers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries prided themselves on their ‘trick’ marionettes: dancing skeletons that could be disarticulated, and transformation puppets that separated into multiple characters.
Above: transformation marionette from the Tiller-Clowes troupe, 1870s – 1890s. Victoria & Albert Museum
Below: a nineteenth century French transformation marionette in the Musée Gadagne, Lyon, showing the larger puppet hidden within
The Marlborough-based British toy marionette manufacturer, Pelham Puppets, produced a variety of trick puppets, including a disarticulating skeleton, a clown that could balance a pole on his nose with a ball on top of it, and a kilted Scotsman, MacBoozle, who could drink from his whiskey bottle and then pluck a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth and mop his brow.
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Above: the popular ‘trick’ marionette, McBoozle, produced by Pelham Puppets
Below: the Skeleton by Pelham Puppets that ingeniously disarticulates when the vertical control-bar is tipped forward
Many artists of the twentieth century were attracted to puppetry… back in 2011 I wrote about glove-puppets made by Paul Klee in this post…  and particularly so to the art of the marionette. There are plentiful examples of stringed-puppets from the cutting-edge of twentieth century modernism, designed by artists of the avant-garde who found it useful to express their ideas in figures not inconvenienced by the shape imposed by a human actor.
Below: marionettes by Russian artist Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster (1842 – 1949)
Below: Hannah Höch, a German Dada artist (1889 – 1978) photographed in 1920 with the puppets she’d made representing her daughters Pax and Botta
Part Two of the Artlog Guide to Marionettes will be posted next week.
A post I made last year about the puppets of Palermo may be viewed HERE.
Previous posts about glove-puppets  and shadow-puppets may be found HERE and HERE.

20 thoughts on “a guide to puppetry 3: the marionette – part one

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  6. AH! That’s perfect…. that skeleton is very like what I am planning to make! I have a story where feet enter, then legs, then torso, then arms and hands…. at the end I want them to all stand up on top of each other. I have been thinking about it for a little while. I was thinking I would have to tilt the controls, and maybe make sort of switches to allow for individual manipulation of the parts. I am still letting the ideas grow in the back of my mind, but it is cheering to see that there are precedents for this type of puppet! I am a little daunted by wood…. but also happy to read that you managed to carve your puppet with out a vice (as I don’t have one either). Hopefully I’ll happen across some good wood. Anyway, thanks for posting this, it’s very exciting!

    • I have a Pelham Skeleton. I’d be happy to send it to you on loan if it would help you work out how to proceed. Let me know.

      Re the wood, just make sure you use a variety that’s fit for purpose. I had some lime that was wonderful… dense and easy to work… but a bit of knotty pine for my puppet’s legs almost drove me insane.

      A decent whittling knife and a sharpening stone might be a good investment.

      • That’s so generous of you, Clive, but I think I’ll try on my own a little to see if I can make it work before making you go to all the trouble of sending it over. I do appreciate the offer though. And even the photo is a help. I still haven’t gathered up any materials, but the tip about the lime is helpful. There’s a timber yard down by the harbour… I am wondering if they have little off cuts they might not need which would be big enough for a little marionette…

        Oh, and I came across this: http://blog.modernmechanix.com/the-art-of-making-lifelike-marionette-bodies/
        Someone has scanned the instructions on making marionettes from an old magazine. They look like they might have some helpful tips for anyone making a marionette for the first time.

        Also, I really enjoyed that post on Ekster’s lovely marionetts, thank you!

  7. ekster’s are FANTASTIC!! i am so happy you posted this, i am too attracted to the marionette form, but i find it daunting. the diagram at the top and the great variety of styles helps *a lot*.
    thank you 🙂

    • You were hesitant when you began making maquettes, and look how good you got at that! Find the way to your own creative processes for this project. Conjure in your mind’s eye what you want to achieve, and work your way toward it. All problems get solved along the way. You know that deep inside. Just don’t be fearful. Be dauntless!

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