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The Art of High Drama at The Jewish Museum NY

The Jewish Museum will present Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama, the first major museum exhibition in the United States ever devoted to the great French actress (1844-1923), from December 2, 2005 through April 2, 2006. Over the course of a sixty-year career, “the Divine Sarah” established herself as the premier tragedienne in the West. Her very name became synonymous with acting and long after her death it continues to exercise a powerful spell on performers and audiences around the world. Born five years after the invention of photography, Bernhardt pioneered the use of modern technologies to disseminate her image, and was the first major stage actress to star in films. Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama will illuminate the life and art of this remarkable performer through over 250 spectacular and rarely seen objects in all media—painting, sculpture, photography, costumes, jewelry, stage designs, theater posters, her furniture and personal effects, as well as a recording of her voice and selected films in which she starred. Drawing on public and private collections in America and Europe, the exhibition will explore celebrity, theatrical style, biography, politics, fashion, and taste.

Exhibition highlights include: a selection of rare, vintage photographs of Sarah Bernhardt by the pioneering French photographer Fיlix Nadar; other photographs of the actress in such famous roles as Hamlet, Camille, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc; sumptuous posters by the Art Nouveau designers, Alphonse Mucha and Jules Cheret; a splendid crown studded with pearls designed by Alphonse Mucha and executed by Renי Lalique; an infamous publicity photograph of Bernhardt posing in her coffin (c. 1880); a letter Sarah Bernhardt wrote to Emile Zola in support of his defense of Alfred Dreyfus; paintings of the actress by prominent contemporaries; costumes including a gold-embroidered cape and a jewel-encrusted crown for Thיodora as well as jeweled bracelets for Cleopatra; items from Bernhardt’s personal wardrobe including an elegant ermine capelet, multi-colored embroidered kid gloves and a feathered fan; examples of sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt; a rare audio recording (c. 1900) of the actress performing an Edmond Rostand play, L’Aiglon (The Eaglet), about the son of Napoleon Bonaparte; film excerpts of the actress at home and performing such roles as Camille and Queen Elizabeth, highlighted by her first film - of the duel scene from Hamlet - made in 1900.

The daughter and niece of Jewish courtesans, Bernhardt was baptized a Catholic, but was mercilessly attacked by the popular press for her supposedly Jewish features and behavior. She was a staunch defender of Alfred Dreyfus and wrote a letter in support of Emile Zola’s publication of J’Accuse. At the same time she was a revered national figure, patriotically serving France during the Franco-Prussian War and World War I.

Bernhardt had an extraordinary trajectory from her beginnings at the Comיdie Franחaise to international stardom. In 1880 she undertook the first of nine American tours, which not only established an enduring relationship with audiences in this country but also with American theatrical pioneers like the Shubert brothers. Her brilliantly orchestrated career included the ownership of theaters and the supervision of each of her productions; it was also the product of her savvy cultivation of her public image. Her prescient deployment of technology extended to the first recording of her famous “golden voice” by Thomas Alva Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Bernhardt was also the first major actress to perform on film, a technological novelty that at the time had little artistic cachet. To spectacular international acclaim, she went on to star in eight movies.

Among the most represented personages of her time, this extremely thin, frizzy-haired belle juive fascinated her contemporaries: she sat for many of the most fashionable artists of her time, was perhaps the most photographed woman in the world, and attached her name to products ranging from hair curlers to liqueurs. As if this were not enough, Bernhardt was herself a sculptor and painter, which simultaneously heightened her fame and made people suspicious of her manifold talents. Bernhardt’s larger-than-life persona and her extraordinary success as actor and entrepreneur established the template for Hollywood icons as we know them. She was an inspiration for such figures as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the contemporary stand-up comic, Sandra Bernhard, among others.

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama has been organized for The Jewish Museum by guest co-curators Carol Ockman, Professor of Art History at Williams College, and Kenneth E. Silver, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University. The Sarah Bernhardt exhibition is coordinated by Karen Levitov, Associate Curator at The Jewish Museum.

This major loan exhibition was realized with the generous participation of the Bibliothטque Nationale de France. In addition, it will feature works from other renowned collections such as the Musיe d’Orsay, the Musיe du Petit Palais, the Musיe Carnavalet, the Musיe des Arts Dיcoratifs, the Musיe de la Publicitי, the Musיe du Costume et de la Mode in Paris; the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Garrick Club in London; the Harvard Theatre Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Museum of the City of New York in the United States; and numerous other important public and private collections. Through its varied exploration of media and ideas, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama will make this enduring figure vivid for contemporary viewers, highlighting both her historical significance and her integral place in modern culture.

A catalogue published by Yale University Press in association with The Jewish Museum, New York will accompany the exhibition. The 232 page book, by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver with contributions by Janis Bergman-Carton, Karen Levitov, and Suzanne Schwarz Zuber, will include 122 color and 73 black and white illustrations. The hardcover edition will be available for $50.00 from The Jewish Museum’s Cooper Shop and bookstores worldwide. A paperback edition will be available exclusively through The Jewish Museum’s Cooper Shop for $35.00.

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama is made possible through a leadership grant from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. Major support was provided by Mildred and George Weissman.

Generous funding was also provided by the estate of Jordan Mayro, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, The Grand Marnier Foundation, the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust, the New York Council for the Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Barbara G. Fleischman, Rita and Burton Goldberg, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, The Mailman Foundation, Inc., the Maurice I. Parisier Foundation, Inc., Linda L. Janklow, and other donors.

About The Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum was established on January 20, 1904 when Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated 26 ceremonial art objects to The Jewish Theological Seminary of America as the core of a museum collection. Today, The Jewish Museum maintains an important collection of 25,000 objects – paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, archaeological artifacts, ceremonial objects, and broadcast media. Widely admired for its exhibitions and educational programs that inspire people of all backgrounds, The Jewish Museum is the preeminent United States institution exploring the intersection of 4,000 years of art and Jewish culture.

Related Links:

  • Sarah Bernhardt Gallery

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    1.Sarah Bernhardt autographed playbill from NY 1910
      Lisa, Derry, N.H. USA    (3/2/2007)


  • Sarah Bernhardt, c. 1860 photo by Félix Nadar (French, 1820–1910)

    Sarah Bernhardt as Adrienne Lecouvreur, c. 1880 photo byW. & D. Downey (British, active 1863-1910s)

    Poster for the Grand Théâtre de Génève, 1897 photo by William Nicholson (British, 1872–1949)

    Farewell American Tour Sarah Bernhardt 1905-6,Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939)

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