Friday, September 12, 2014

Lyon and Marionettes and Puppets, Oh My!

Basilique Notre Dame
Traveling by yourself is at once both easier and more difficult. Map reading, capturing moments on ‘film’, staving off the ubiquitous beggars, and having a meal are all easier if you’re with someone. But as one Near-Normal traveler said to me, ‘Don't you love the freedom of roaming the streets by yourself, free to let your attention be drawn in any direction, by any item, noise or aroma? To pass or linger at any window, not having to wait or hurry for your companions, for your companions are your eyes, nose, ears and curiosity.’ Yes, I do; and I had lots of free time in Lyon while the other Near-Normal travelers were busy with meetings. And Lyon is a wonderful town to explore!

No real ‘Lyonnaisians’ are on the streets before 9:00 AM on a Saturday, but the Visitor Center is open early and it should be
Louis XIV
your first stop. Located on the Place Bellacour, it commands a great view of the one landmark you can see from virtually all of Lyon, the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. There is also an excellent statue of Louis XIV on a horse. When I looked closely at the Louie’s feet I wondered why an emperor couldn’t afford a saddle with stirrups. In any case, at the Visitor’s Center you can get all of your questions answered (except about the stirrups), find a good map, and purchase of a Lyon Card. This card gets you onto all of the transportation (bus, trolley, subway, tram, funicular) except taxis and into 30 museums/sights for free and another 11 at a discount; it’s worth the 40€ price! As it turned out, I found that I could visit as many as three museums a day, giving myself museum overload and a propensity to bore my companions with the arcane knowledge I’d acquired.

My research about Lyon had uncovered a good deal of information about the more than 250 murals scattered about the city, the silk industry and the plethora of museums. What wasn’t revealed was that Lyon is the birthplace of Guignol.

In the back of a shop (Disagn' Cardelli at 6 rue St Jean), behind a curtain and down a flight
Circular from Left: Dentist with Guignol, Dracula,
Guignol with Ronald Reagan
of wooden stairs was the Petit Musée Fantastique de Guignol (Google does a good-enough translation of this webpage). I’d have missed this museum entirely if a group of us hadn’t stopped in the shop to look for a souvenir. My colleagues went on the find a cold drink and a place to sit, but I was curious. The museum is a funky, happy, tiny place loaded with one thing Lyon is famous for: marionettes. And the most famous of these puppets is Guignol. The story goes that a street dentist used a hand puppet named Guignol to attract patients so he could extract their teeth. He wasn’t a particularly good dentist, but he was a good puppeteer and this launched him into show business. There are numerous Guignol stories, all with our hero getting the best of some overbearing person or situation. Probably the most popular are those in which Guignol conquers a rather arrogant police officer, making a fool of the current authority figure this character represents. Guignol, and his adventures, have continued to be a part of the Lyonnais culture through World War II and into the present. Marionettes from around the world are also represented in the museum, including Count Dracula, political leaders, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Indonesian Shadow puppets. I went around the entire museum twice in about 30 minutes (there is an ‘audio guide’ in English, followed by various other languages, playing over the speaker system) and was still smiling when I left.

The Gadagne Musées (1 place du petit Collège) is two museums in one. The main part of the Gadagne is the history of Lyon while the other portion, nine rooms, is devoted to
Left to Right: Puppet of Puppets, Steampunk Fish,
Cello Man
marionettes. Even though I had been in the Petit Musée Fantastique de Guignol, I really didn’t expect to find this much space given over to puppets. The first exhibit in the marionette section tells about a group from Canada that spent some time working with puppeteers in Lyon to construct new puppets and put on plays. Started in the 1900s, there are between 300 and 500 puppets on display at any given time. The information about the construction of these puppets is particularly fascinating. The heads were originally carved from wood or, the cheaper ones, made of papier-mâché. The heads were painted and attached to an armature. The clothing was put on to the armature, strings were attached to a handle and it’s ready to go. It sounds easy, but it’s not, particularly for the more complicated puppets. The marionette collection contains everything from the bizarre to the mundane, including a few things that were downright disturbing. Of course, I found myself lingering at the displays of the weird marionettes. They made me wonder just what the story was that required such off-beat characters. The collection is extensive with representatives from Indonesia, Russia, Japan, and, of course, Guignol.

OK, I know it’s a foreign country and they don’t do things as we’d do them, but come on! You can’t get in to a museum before 2:00 PM or after 5:00 PM? This didn’t make any sense
Circular from Right: Stomping Grapes, Crocodile,
to me at all until I realized that this is actually a ‘working museum’ in that there are people who are busily constructing automatons from 8:00AM until 2:00 PM, and from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM. These pieces go out to businesses, individuals and other museums around the world. The Musée des Automates (100 rue St Georges) is a bit off the main drag but not particularly hard to find once you figure out that the road it’s on changes names a couple of times. This little museum is chocked full of puppets that run off of electricity. Made only for this museum, these puppets are tributes to selected painters, composers, authors and to the silk industry along with the famous puppet from the 1700s that seemed to start the industry, Guignol. There is a written guide, as well as a very knowledgeable young lady who will tell about the building of the puppets and answer any questions. When I expressed confusion about the inclusion of Louis Pasteur in the tribute to the silk workers, she told me that he was called in to find out why the silk worms were getting sick. He found what was causing the sickness and the cure, and saved the Lyon silk industry. Of all the exhibits, I think my favorites were the automated crocodile from Peter Pan and the automated octopus from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. The diorama that featured the making of Beaujolais wines along with Victor Hugo’s comment, ‘It is God who created the water but the man did the wine’ and a puppet busily stomping the grapes also made me smile. It’s all quite fun and educational; and finding Sherlock Holmes and Watson waving at me from a window once I was back out on the street wasn’t bad, at all.

On rue St Jean, very near the Cathédrale St Jean, is yet another odd museum in which I expected to see even more puppets. Musée Miniature et Cinéma (60, rue St Jean) houses
Left to Right: Men in Black II, Mummy
all sorts of artifacts from movies. Who knew that there is a talented group of artists in Lyon focusing on making masks, appendages, props, and sets (both full size and miniature) for international films? There are six levels to this museum and each has a full complement of oddities. What really struck me as unusual were the signs on curtained-off rooms that stated, ‘This area may be inappropriate for sensitive individuals and children’. Behind these curtains were body parts in all states of mutilation, guns (both real and alien), monster masks and the like. Throughout this museum everything is labeled with a visual indication of for which movie this particular piece was made. Many movies I’d never heard of since they were ‘foreign films’ but I was tickled to see some of my favorites represented: Harry Potter, Alien, Men in Black, the Mummy and Indiana Jones. The miniature stage sets were interesting, but not nearly as exciting as the masks and props. The only puppets in this museum were the automated models used in films; I don’t know if I was disappointed or merely surprised. What I do know is that I’ve had a fairly thorough education in the making and collecting of puppets and marionettes!

Shadow Puppets
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