genesis of a beast: a photo-album

Jean Marais in La Belle et la Bête, 1946.

My design for a puppet inspired by the film.

The Making

Understructure of looped cardboard

Building the head in a laminate of gum-strip

Roughly marking-in with a felt-tip

Further building and re-marking

Gessoed and painted

Adding a mane of twisted hemp

Building a hand from a wine-cork, wire and gum-strip

Adding the torso and arms

Painting canvas to make the costume

La Bête

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Clive and the Beast

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My puppet of la Bête for the Artlog Puppet Challenge, is not the first example of my interest in big cats.

Looking back I see there are more than a few of his cousins that crop up in my paintings, and one of them can be seen here in a detail from The Barbarian Brought down by a Lioness, from the collection of MoMA Wales.

Below: the full picture.

There are lions, too, in The Grave Dug by Beasts (private collection)…

… and here…

… and here too.

It would seem I am a fan of the ‘lion’!

La Bête and the Sin-Eater

La Bête is just about done. He is not as I expected. His costume has been simplified, made as a single garment painted with the elements from the original design that barely register other than as pleasingly abstract shapes. The starched collar and cuffs were made though have been left off, as the painted canvas costume is already rather stiff and the extra elements unnecessarily impeded the movement of head and hands. So he looks rather less the dandy prince in bejewelled doublet, lace and trailing sleeves, and more the alchemist in fusty, pentangled robes.

The puppet has the proportions of a Bunraku figure, with a small head and broad, bulky shoulders atop a long body. Haven’t yet decided whether to add some legs for a second puppeteer to operate. They’re not strictly necessary, but would add versatility. His articulation is extremely good. I’m particularly pleased with the head. He can turn it from side to side, look up and down and it can shrink down onto the shoulders as if in recoil. My direct control of it from inside the body cavity makes the movement remarkably subtle. While the robes seem almost sculpted because of the paint-on-heavy-canvas construction, the unyielding, hieratic quality, works in favour of the puppet’s character.

Behind the puppet is a painting by Welsh coal-miner-turned-artist, the late Nick Evans. It shows the old tradition of a ‘sin-eater’ visiting a bereaved household to eat food set on the coffin-lid, taking upon himself the sins of the deceased in an example of sympathetic magic ‘transference’.

Please excuse this image. It’s a poorly-cropped illustration from a book about Evans, and the head of the raven that sits on the sin-eater’s staff is missing from it. The painting itself is too big for me to get a good photograph without setting it up with arc lamps and the tripod camera, and I don’t have time for that today. But there are some good images further down of details I photographed myself.

In this example of the tradition, the coffin is open and the food is recognisably a plate of ‘Welsh’ cakes, laid out on the dead man’s chest. Nick Evans never observed this first hand as the custom had died out before his time, but he painted it from the description given by his mother, who as a child had witnessed a ‘sin-eating’. Sin-eaters were both reviled and yet clearly useful, and they carried out their work for a fee.

Peter and I disagreed about the acquisition of this painting at auction. (I wanted it and he didn’t.) So my friend Catriona purchased it for me, and then pretended that it was her idea!!! I only confessed the deceit to Peter after her death!

Above: the sin-eater with a ‘Welsh’ cake at his lips and his crow on his staff.

Nick Evans worked exclusively in black oil paint on a white ground, eschewing brushes and using only his fingers and some rags as tools. He is best known for his paintings of the south Wales mining communities, the colliers and pit-ponies working underground, and the families above. Peter would have preferred a good example of an Evans painting showing miners at their work, but I loved this one, with the community gathered around the coffin and the children straining on tip-toe to peek inside it. It’s four foot square, and I can imagine it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, this representation of a corpse, gaunt with age/illness and swaddled for the grave, but I love it.

Above: children peer into the coffin, a mourner stands with hands clasped to head, and one of the sin-eater’s two attendants bears the bell that sounded their approach. How dramatic and forboding they must have been, arriving after dark and bearing their candle-lantern, robed like druids amid the clamouring of bell and crow!

Building La Bête

My puppet of La Bête progresses, and I’ve completed the head, torso, arms and hands.

Above: hand under construction, made in gum-strip over a wire and cork armature.

The head and neck fit onto the shoulders without a permanent fixing, in the style of a Bunraku puppet. (This method of construction enables the heads of Bunraku puppets to be removed for maintenance and wig-dressing.) The extended neck is the main control rod, grasped through the back of the puppet and the means of operating the head.

 

The articulation of the neck works well, and there is a lot of flexibility and character in the movement.

Above: design for the puppet.

The costume has been much simplified from the design I made last year. Rather than the layers of double-sleeved doublet, breeches and boots under an elaborate cloak, I’m instead making a made a full-length robe from heavy artist’s linen painted to imitate the effect I’d originally envisaged. The fabric has been cut out though not yet stitched together, and I’m in the process of working on it with brushes and acrylic paint. Once made up and fitted onto the puppet I’ll decide on the matter of the legs, and whether to make them or not. Female Bunraku puppets don’t have legs. The third operator simply manipulates the bulky lower half of the kimono… these things are as bulky as duvets… to suggest the motion of legs and feet. While I like the elegant lace-cuffed boot shown in the design, feet may not strictly be necessary for the puppet. We’ll have to wait and see.

The puppet has a very strange character. Its movement is odd and distinctly unnerving, with a feral quality that’s hard to pin down. The effect is more raw than my original design suggested, which is fine by me. (At the time I thought the drawing a bit too designed.) There is certainly less in this puppet of the nobility that characterised the role as played by Jean Marais in the Cocteau film. This ‘beast’ feels leaner (he’s hungrier) and there is something deathly about him, like a mummy or even a zombie, probably because of the blackened nose and cheeks. The eyes, black, with the suggestion of metallic irises, are bulbous, and when viewed from the front they disconcertingly look in different directions. Looking at the puppet now, I can see perhaps an influence from another film, Paul Wegener’s 1920 masterpiece The Golem. Here’s the head of a demon conjured by Rabbi Loew in his laboratory, and I can see more than a little of my puppet of La Bête in it.

The hands are spiky with talons, clawed and rigid, and certainly don’t look like the hands of a man made-up to look like a beast’s. The puppet is disturbing, less leonine than demonically feline. However I’m a bit concerned that the high, stiffened-lace collar will ‘dandify’ him, and if that proves to be the case, then I’ll certainly jettison it. The costume must recede, unlike in the film, where Marais-as-Beast seems almost defined by the silhouette of his ornate doublet with its standing collar and trailing sleeves.

Note that La Bête’s ‘vampire’ fangs have now been painted in.

Below: construction of a Bunraku puppet revealed when the garments are removed.

La Bête

 

My head for La Bête: gessoed and painted papier-mâché and hemp fibre

With only until the end of next month for work to be completed for the Artlog Puppet Challenge, I think that Peter Slight and I should probably hold back from showing any more progress by contributors, or there will be no surprises on the day. My own puppet is moving along at a reasonable lick, though I started… as I suspect many participants did… later than I’d hoped. My plans were to make a Beast and his Beauty to go with him, but the latter puppet will have to be a long-term project as I don’t have the time to make a pair right now.

My inspiration was La Belle et la Bête, the Jean Cocteau film of 1946 starring the luminous Josette Day as Beauty (I don’t believe there has been an actor in the cinema who has surpassed her enigmatically layered performance of the character) and the smouldering (literally so in the scene where his hands burn… see above) Jean Marais in the role of the tormented Beast. Not wanting to make a doll-like facsimile of Marais, instead I took the leonine concept and turned it into something more pared-down and appropriate to a puppet. I concentrated on the wide cheekbones, the blazing eyes and the high hairline, all of which had been similarly emphasised in the bust of the character made by Marais later in life, when in another act of transformation, he reinvented himself as a notable ceramic artist. Two casts of his self-portrait-as-la-Bête, bookend the front of his tomb at Vallauris.

The tomb of Jean Marais

I’ve purposefully kept the head of my beast quite rough in texture, as I don’t gravitate toward a high refinement in my own puppet-making, though I admire that quality in others who do it well. (The brilliant Ronnie Burkett, for example.) I left the gessoed surface of the head unsanded, the better to give some ‘tooth’ for the paint. The snaky, dreadlocked wig and beard are made from twisted hemp. The fangs have yet to be added. Today I plan to make his paws and talons, which I’m going to particularly emphasise with their size and spikiness. (Not quite ‘Wolverine’ but larger than the claws Marais wore.)

A puppet is a cypher. Unlike a human actor, whose facial expressions can change, the puppet actor has to rely on other means to convey its thoughts to the audience. Marais’ La Bête was undoubtedly beautiful in its monstrousness, and that beauty is the aspect I decided to jettison. Instead I tried to find his wildness and torment, and the actor’s subtle depiction of humanity being overwhelmed by a bestial nature, which is something I felt I might be able to achieve in this construct of papier-mâché, plaster and paint. I’m quite surprised by how like a Japanese Kabuki actor the little fellow has turned out to be. Even in repose he bristles with unexpected energy.

My original drawing was of a rather elaborately costumed puppet, though the reality is going to be slightly less so, as I want the head and hands to be where the viewer focuses. I’ve made the puppet in black and white, to reference the film, rather than using the vivid blues, reds and golds that have been removed from this image of the design.