PARIS — Pioneering French stage star Sarah Bernhardt was one of the most famous women in the world at the time of her death in 1923 – a status she owed not only to her talent as an actress, but also to her modern instinct for make themselves known and use the press to brand their image.
A century later, a French museum has opened an exhibit on the eccentric, outrageous, and hyphenated artist known as “La Divine”, who many consider the world’s first celebrity.
At the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris, the public today discovers for the first time together the crazy puzzle of Gothic stories, costumes, recordings, films, photos, jewels, sculptures and personal objects – which has made Bernhardt an object of fascination from Berlin to London and New York.
“Sarah Bernhardt was more than a famous actress. She was one of the first celebrities. She was a businesswoman, a fashion icon, a sculptor, a theater director, a visionary, a courtesan. She pushed the boundaries between the sexes. By promoting herself, she paved the way for many people, including Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé,” said Stephanie Cantarutti, curator of the exhibition. “Sarah Bernhardt: And the woman created the star”.
The show marking the centenary of his death brings together around 400 pieces that delve far beyond his life on stage.
It begins at the dawn of her career: a handwritten diary of the official Paris register of courtesans of the 1860s with a photograph of her and descriptions of the activities of this young “courtesan”. Bernhardt was, after all, born into the leading role of her life: her mother was also a courtesan and the mistress of Napoleon III’s half-brother.
The exhibition meanders freely through the timeline of her life: from her beginnings on stage after Alexandre Dumas took her to the Comédie Française, to her most famous roles such as Joan of Arc, Phaedra and Cleopatra – featuring showcasing the dazzling costumes worn at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater which were then for Americans an emblem of Paris at the dawn of the modern fashion industry. The Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt du Châtelet has since been renamed Théâtre de la Ville, while all that remains in the building that bears her name is a café-restaurant.
She was one of France’s most prolific, famous for saying she needed to play male characters to feel less restricted. A photo from the exhibit shows Bernhardt in a man’s suit, playing Hamlet in a French version of the play.
“She said that the roles given to women were not interesting enough and that she could not demonstrate all her talent by playing them, so she played many male roles. Especially. She was ahead of her time” , Cantarutti said, adding that Bernhardt was bisexual and was often photographed wearing pants – even though it was illegal for a woman to do so – decades before stars such as Marlene Dietrich.
She was one of the early influencers, the dazzling Oscar Wilde, who wrote the play Salomé in French for her and called it “the incomparable”. She inspired Marcel Proust. She was visited in her dressing room by Gustave Flaubert, while Mark Twain wrote: “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, beautiful actresses, good actresses, great actresses and Sarah Bernhardt.
Her intuition for using emerging media and dramatizing stories for the press was key to the actress’ particular mystique.
She rose to prominence at the Universal Exhibition of 1878, escaping in a hot air balloon over the Tuileries Gardens, where she slashed the neck of a bottle of champagne with a sword and tasted foie gras, she said, to escape the bad smell. from Paris.
It wasn’t all rosy – she suffered from having one lung, one kidney and later in life only one leg, but she was never oppressed.
Due to his penchant for tragic roles, rumors spread that Bernhardt slept in a coffin at night. She saw the potential to play with gossip: she paid for a padded coffin to be installed in her home and hired a photographer to photograph her sleeping in it.
“This photo has gone everywhere; he became very famous. She also had a hat made out of bats,” Cantarutti said.
Goth then became her trademark when she acquired a pet baby alligator at home, which she named Ali Gaga. Ali Gaga died of liver failure because Bernhardt only fed him champagne, according to Cantarutti.
Bernhardt then took the United States by storm. She was greeted there like a celebrity during her American tour of 1912-13, although few people could understand anything of her performances in French.
The tour followed the success of his groundbreaking 1912 silent film, Queen Elizabeth. The man who secured the US rights to show it on tour, Adolph Zukor, became so wealthy that he used the film’s profits to found the Paramount Pictures film studio – then the Famous Players Film company – according to the museum.
Yet it was sculpture that was the great passion of his inexhaustible life, giving rise to remarkable works in marble and bronze – some of which were celebrated and displayed at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Several of his sculptures are permanently exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
“It seemed to me now that I was born to be a sculptor and had begun to see my theater in a bad light,” Bernhardt said in his autobiography “My Double Life.”
“Despite everything” was her mantra and the phrase she identified with, the exhibit says.
“Despite the hardships of her life, starting as a courtesan, trying to break into a man’s world. Despite all of that, and then having an amputee, she carried on,” Cantarutti said.
“Sarah Bernhardt: And the Woman Created the Star” runs until August 27.
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