Object of the week: Noble simplicity, quiet grandeur? Not with us!

by | Sep 19, 2021 | A look in the depot, Knowledge

Our Kasper shows his teeth – a broad grin on his face, which is the epitome of mischievous humour with bright red chubby cheeks and raised eyebrows. A wonderfully carved head, expressive and lively due to the care with which he was carved. The flashing teeth belong to the style of the Punch and Judy head. Why is that? Despite all the carving art – this is not a portrait head “as it should be”. If we take a look at the history of portrait busts – from ancient Rome to at least the 18th century – we will not find a single figure that would show its teeth. It wasn’t proper, no matter whether they were portraits of well-known people or figures of imagination. At the very most, artists throughout the centuries allowed themselves the hint of a smile at the corners of their mouths. In past times, it was called “decorum” (“what is proper”), and that meant “close your mouth!” in any case. In the 18th century, Johann Joachim Winckelmann put it in a nutshell: “Noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” are the hallmarks of the great soul…and that is only possible without showing teeth.

But Punch is not an ancient noble soul, is he? No, he is not. Puppet theatre comes from a completely different tradition – our Punch and Judy is related to the carnival, it’s stage lies on a  fairground, and here of course completely different laws apply. Exaggeration, the grotesque, even the ugly and the loud have their place here. And so we find figures grinning or baring their teeth in paintings by Dutch painters depicting proverbs, popular amusements or even figures from hell. And our Punch and Judy figure also has depth; after all, showing one’s teeth can just as easily be a side effect of hearty laughter as a threatening gesture. 

In the history of European art, figures showing their teeth only exist in pictures, not as sculptures…so puppet theatre remains unique. But let’s broaden our view to the whole world: when we look at our collection, we notice that teeth play a major role in our Indian, Indonesian or also in some puppets from Nigeria, for example. What do they mean? Is it also a laugh, or can teeth also be attributes of power? Can you tell from them whether a figure is good or evil, friendly or hostile? Does it matter what the teeth are made of?

 All this remains to be found out.

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