“Turn The Puppets Loose”

Museum für Gestaltung
Ausstellungsstrasse 60 and Toni-Areal, Pfingstweidstrasse 96
May 5, 2017–September 10, 2017

View of “Turn The Puppets Loose,” 2017.

The mannequin cannot be surpassed for natural grace. The German writer Heinrich von Kleist established this in his famous essay “On the Marionette Theater” in 1810. Nevertheless, no career was allotted to these sculptures on strings. They remained entertainment in seasonal fairs and a popular pastime into the twentieth century.

During WWI, a small group of Zurich avant-gardists discovered the dolls’ potential—chiefly, the Swiss artist and textile designer Sophie Taeuber-Arp and the illustrator, painter, and designer Otto Morach, who both taught at Zurich University of the Arts. As early as 1918, a marionette stage was installed at the school. From this history arises a breathtakingly beautiful exhibition, from the museum’s collection of more than 350 historic puppets. The show documents the legendary Zurich puppet-theater tradition up to the 1960s.

In the high foyer, five great figurines on wires greet visitors from the ceiling: Die Wache (The Sentry); Der Papagei (The Parrot); Freudanalytikus; Dr. Komplex; and Der Hirsch (The Stag)—these were commissioned by Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi’s 2015–16 fall/winter collection. In the exhibit, visitors encounter the original, much smaller prototypes, made by Taeuber-Arp for Carlo Gozzi’s 1918 avant-garde play König Hirsch (King Stag).

Beside the beguiling marionettes by Pierre Gauchat, Rudolf Urech, and Alexandra Exter—who is known for making film history with her futuristic figurines for the Soviet sci-fi film Aelita in 1924—this show offers an abundance of sketches, posters, production designs, and other material. It is uplifting to see them exquisitely exhibited here. For even if the exhibition remains modestly silent on this point, without them, works by a range of artists—from Louise Bourgeois to Annette Messager and from Pierre Huyghe to Wael Shawky—would hardly be thinkable.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

— Max Glauner