Hélène Delprat

Galerie Maeght

What’s missing, of course, from this exhibit of Hélène Delprat’s “Théâtres” (Theaters) are the actors. But if the costumes, the props, the drawings, the masks, the cardboard sets and tiny mannequins can’t move, breathe, or recite their lines, they are still somehow astonishingly animate. There is, for example, the unlikely amalgam of silk, bubble-wrap, leather, canvas, tulle, and plastic garbage bags that cascades down the height of a wall from a papier-mâché animal mask: this is the Beast’s costume from a two-person ballet adaptation of La Belle et la Bête (The beauty and the beast), choreographed by Andy Degroat in 1985. Then there are the cardboard boxes—the ordinary supermarket variety—that Delprat has cut and painted into model stages: the foreboding gray huis clos of La Belle et la Bête and the festive envelope space of La Résurrection rouge et blanche de Roméo et Juliette (The red and white resurrection of Romeo and Juliet, 1990)—a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s original by Congolese author Soni Labou Tansi. Most imposing of all are the costumes and props for La Résurrection that “people” the main wing of the gallery with their sculptural presences: Juliet’s two-tiered step-pyramid of a dress, Romeo’s accordion-pleated shirt and voluminously draped trousers (the bulky shapes are intended to emphasize the separation of the two lovers), and the fanciful attire of the Capulet and Montague clans, with their improbable cutouts and protuberances, their deliberate mix of “rich” and “poor” fabrics, their heraldic color symbolism (blue for the Capulets, red for the Montagues).

No doubt, the imaginative “staging” of this exhibit—also Delprat’s handiwork—contributes to its liveliness, encouraging, even obliging the visitor to see the works by circulating among them. The 16 Romeo and Juliet costumes, for example, are suspended at eye level from the ceiling, in and among stage furnishings for the same production, while tiny cardboard mannequins and notebook drawings that trace the genesis of the costume designs are cleverly sandwiched into folding screens of Plexiglas.

Delprat likes to say that she is a painter who “does sets” rather than a set designer. In fact, she also invents “décors pour rien ni personne” (sets for nothing and no one) for her own amusement. These began as three-dimensional reconstitutions of the myths and ceremonies she was painting nearly a decade ago as a youthful artist-in-residence at the Villa Medici in Rome. It was after an exhibit of paintings and box-sets that she presented there—in a papier-mâchè jungle decor—that Degroat tracked her down for La Belle et la Bête. Four years later she was invited to do what amounted to a large-scale “set for nothing” at the true-false tomb of Juliet in Verona, followed by a restaging of the piece at a doubly false “Juliet’s tomb” in Clermont-Ferrand. The Soni Labou Tansi production came at the same time that she was working on a series of paintings entitled “Anima Sola,” and since then, she has also designed sets and costumes for Roger Dumas’ one-person play, A propos de Martin (About Martin, 1982).

For Delprat, these ventures into theater, like her artist’s books, woodcuts and engravings, and videos, clearly serve as a counterpoint to painting proper. Her personal preoccupations and visual vocabulary remain the same throughout, and it can hardly be a coincidence that someone so fascinated with mythologies of metamorphosis, from Ovid to the syncretic anima sola of Latin America, should make her way to this quintessential art of transformation. But in their patently calculated spontaneity, their artful artlessness, these works for the theater also remind us that painting is a medium, not a stretched canvas, and the same is true for creativity.

Miriam Rosen