Jules Talrich, Between Anatomy and the Fairground

Some time ago I wrote a piece about those peculiar epiphanies linking different points on our mental map, which we thought were distant from each other, those unexpected convergences between stories and characters which at first glance appear to be unrelated.

Here’s another one: what do the preserved corpse of Jeremy Bentham (1), the famous Duchenne study on facial expressions (2), the amusement park museum in Paris (3) and anatomical waxes (4) have in common?

The link between all those things is one man: Jules Talrich, born in Paris in 1826.

The Talrich family came from Perpignan, in the Pyrenees. There Jules’s grandfather, Thadée, had been chief surgeon at the local hospital; there his father, Jacques, had worked as a military surgeon before moving to Paris, two years prior to Jules’ birth.
As a child, therefore, Jules grew up in contact with medicine and the anatomical practice. In fact, his father had become famous for his wax models; this renown earned him a post as official ceroplast at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1824. We can imagine little Jules running around in his father’s workshop, looking at his dad with admiration as he worked on his écorchés (flayed) models.

When he was only 6 years old, in 1832, Jules probably saw his father modeling the head of Jeremy Bentham.
The famous utilitarian philosopher had decided, a couple of years before he died, that his body should have been publicly dissected, embalmed and exposed in a case. But the process of mummification on his head, carried out by an anatomist friend of Bentham, Southwood Smith, had not given the expected results: the skin on his face had become dark and shriveled, and was judged excessively macabre. So Jacques Talrich – whose reputation as a ceroplast extended across the Channel – had been commissioned a wax reproduction of Bentham’s head. The so-called “auto icon” is still exhibited today in a hallway at the University College of London.

So it was that the young Jules grew up surrounded by wax models, and taking part in his father’s dissections of corpses in the Faculty of Medicine. When he was little more than a boy, he began working as a “prosector”, i.e. dissecting and preparing anatomical pieces to be used during class at the University; in his dad’s laboratory, he soon learned the art of replicating with molten wax the most intricate muscular and vascular structures of the human body.

When Jacques died in 1851, Jules Talrich inherited the family business. In 1862 he was appointed ceroplast at the University, the same place that his father had occupied for so many years; and just like his father, Jules also became renowned for his wax and plaster anatomical models, both normal and pathological, which on the account of their exquisite workmanship were commissioned and exhibited in several museums, and turned out a huge success in several Universal Expositions.

Besides a vast scientific production, the Maison Talrich provided services in the funeral business, modeling funeral masks or reconstructing illustrious faces such as that of Cardinal Richelieu, realized from his embalmed head. The ability of the French ceroplast also turned out to be useful in some criminal cases, for example to identify the corpse of a woman cut in half which was found in the Seine in 1876. Talrich’s waxes were also highly requested in the religious field, and the company made several important wax effigies of saints and martyrs.

However, Talrich also influenced the world of entertainment and traveling fairs, at least to some extent. At the beginning of 1866 on the Grands Boulevards he opened his “Musée Français”, a wax museum in the spirit of the famous Madame Tussauds in London.

Talrich’s exhibition had a markedly mainstream appeal: upstairs, the public could see aome literary, historical and mythological characters (from Adam and Eve to Don Quixote, from Hercules to Vesalius), while for a surcharge of 5 francs one could access the underground floor, by descending a narrow spiral staircase. Here, in a calculated “chamber of horrors” atmosphere, were collected the most morbid attractions — torture scenes, pathological waxes, and so on. The visit ended with the illusion of the “Talking Head” illusion, patented by Professor Pepper (also inventor of the Pepper’s ghost); unfortunately the public soon realized that the effect was achieved by hiding an actor’s body behind two mirrors, and in a short time the real entertainment for the crowd became throwing paper balls on the poor man’s head.

The fact that a renowned and serious ceroplast, with a permanent job at the University, devoted himself to this kind of popular entertainment should not be astonishing. His museum, in fact, was part of a larger movement that in the second half of the 19th century brought anatomy into circuses and traveling fairs, a kind of attraction balancing between science, education and sensationalism.

In those years nearly every sideshow had a wax museum. And in it,

pedagogical figures had to provide information on distant populations and on the mysteries of procreation, they had to explain why one needed to wash and abstain from drinking too much, to show the perils of venereal diseases and the ambiguities of consanguinity. It was an illustrated morality, but also an opportunity to gaze at the forbidden in good conscience, to become a voyeur by virtue. A summary of the perversities of bourgeois civilization.

(A. de Baecque, “Tristes cires”, Libération, 13 luglio 2001)

A strange and ambiguous mixture of science and entertainment:

Traveling anatomical museums found their place at the fair, alongside the pavilions of scientific popularization, historical wax museums and other dioramas, all manifestations of the transition from high culture to popular culture. These new types of museums differed from the pedagogical university museums on the account of their purpose and the type of public they were intended for: contrary to academical institutions, they had to touch the general public of traveling fairs as lucrative attractions, which explains the spectacular nature of some pieces. And yet, they never completely lost their pedagogical vocation, although retranslated in a moralizing sense, as testified by the common collections about “social hygiene”.

(H. Palouzié, C. Ducourau, “De la collection Fontana à la collection Spitzner,
l’aventure des cires anatomiques de Paris à Montpellier
”, in In Situ n. 31, 2017)

The Musée Français was short-lived, and Talrich was forced to close after less than two years of activity; in 1876, he opened a second museum near Montmartre, this time a more scientific (albeit still voyeuristic) installation. Almost 300 pathological models were exposed here, as well as some ethnological waxes.

But besides his own museums, Jules Talrich supplied waxworks and plaster models for a whole range of other collections — both stable and itinerant — such as the Musée Grevin, the Grand Panopticum de l’Univers or the very famous Spitzner Museum.
In fact, many of the pieces circulating in amusement parks were made by Talrich; and some of these anatomical waxes, together with real pathological and teratological preparations, are now kept in a “secret cabinet” inside the Musée des Arts Forains at the Pavillons de Bercy in Paris. (This museum, entirely dedicated to traveling carnivals, is in my opinion one of the most marvelous places in the world and, ça va sans dire, I have included it in my book Paris Mirabilia).

Jules Talrich retired in 1903, but his grandchildren continued the business for some time. Jules and his father Jacques are remembered as the greatest French ceroplasts, together with Jean-Baptiste Laumonier (1749-1818), Jules Baretta (1834-1923) and Charles Jumelin (1848-1924).

In closing, here’s one last curiosity — as well as the last “convergence”, of the four I mentioned at the beginning.

Several photographs of Jules Talrich exist, and for a peculilar reason. A lover of physiognomy and phrenology himself, Jules agreed in 1861 to take part in Guillaume Duchenne‘s experiments on how facial expressions are connected to emotions. The shots depicting Talrich were included by Duchenne in his Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, published the following year.

But Jules’ beautiful face, with his iconic mustache, is also visible in some plasterwork, which Talrich provided with his own features: whether this was simply an artist’s whim, or a symbolic meditation on his own mortality, we will never know.

(Thanks, calliroe!)

La donna gorilla

La trasformazione a vista d’occhio di una donna in gorilla è uno dei trucchi storici che hanno avuto maggiore successo nei luna-park, nelle fiere itineranti, nei sideshow e nei circhi di tutto il mondo. Ultimamente sta un po’ passando di moda, dopo decenni di lustro e splendore, ma qualche circo (anche italiano) utilizza ancora questa attrazione per divertire e intrattenere il pubblico.

L’attrazione consiste in questo: voi (il pubblico) entrate in una piccola stanza oscura, e vedete sul palco una gabbia illuminata. All’interno della gabbia, una donna discinta. L’imbonitore sale sul palco, e comincia ad affabularvi con la sua storia. Il più delle volte vi racconterà del celebre “anello mancante”, quel primate che si troverebbe fra lo stadio di scimmia e quello umano, che Darwin non riuscì mai a individuare. Dopo avervi rassicurato della robustezza della gabbia, e avervi preparato allo show più elettrizzante dell’intero pianeta, vi annuncerà che la ragazza sta per mutare di forma sotto ai vostri occhi! Sì, proprio lei, quella bella prigioniera che scuote le sbarre della gabbia grugnendo, è l’anello mancante! Può passare indistintamente dallo stadio umano a quello di scimmia e viceversa! “Guardate i suoi denti divenire feroci fauci, signore e signori!”

Mentre, scettici, aspettate il momento clou, comincia davvero a succedere qualcosa: lentamente, come in un morphing cinematografico, alla ragazza spuntano dei peli, le braccia divengono nere e muscolose e per ultima la sua faccia assume i tratti di uno scimmione tropicale… e poco importa se capite benissimo che il gorilla è in realtà un tizio in un costume, siete colpiti e ipnotizzati dall’effetto della trasformazione, che è talmente vivida e reale… in quel momento sospeso, in quell’attimo di sorpresa, il gorilla con un colpo secco sfonda le sbarre della gabbia, e si avventa verso di voi urlando! Nelle grida di panico e nel fuggi fuggi generale (aiutato dai circensi che, con la scusa di salvarvi la pelle, vi indirizzano gesticolando verso l’uscita), senza sapere come, vi trovate fuori dall’attrazione, insicuri e un po’ frastornati da ciò che avete visto.

Cosa è successo? Si tratta in verità di un ingegnoso trucco ottico messo a punto nei lontani anni 1860 da due scienziati, Henry Dircks e John Henry Pepper (l’effetto prenderà il nome di quest’ultimo, data la sua celebrità nell’epoca vittoriana, nonostante egli avesse più volte cercato di dare il giusto credito al vero inventore, Dircks). Inizialmente studiato per il teatro, non prese mai piede sui grandi palcoscenici: fu invece “riciclato” per i luna-park e viene tutt’ora impiegato nei più grandi parchi a tema del mondo.

Il segreto sta in un pannello di vetro o uno specchio semitrasparente, camuffato e posto tra il pubblico e la scena. Il vetro è angolato (in verde nella figura) in modo da riflettere gli oggetti che vengono illuminati in una seconda camera (nascosta al pubblico, il quale vede soltanto il palco, delimitato dal quadratino rosso). Visto da una posizione più elevata, l’effetto sarebbe visibile in questo modo:

Le due camere (quella di scena e quella “segreta”) devono combaciare perfettamente nel riflesso sul vetro. Il fantasmino nascosto nella stanza di sinistra, quando è illuminato, è visibile nel riflesso come se fosse presente veramente sulla scena; se è illuminato fiocamente, appare come una presenza ectoplasmatica; e se resta al buio, rimane completamente invisibile.

Una volta preparate con cura le due camere e il vetro, il resto diviene semplice: la donna mantiene una posizione fissa in fondo alla stanza visibile, e mentre il gorilla (il fantasma, nello schema) viene gradatamente illuminato, il pubblico vedrà i suoi peli “comparire” a poco a poco, come in una dissolvenza incrociata, sul corpo della giovane fanciulla. Finché, ad un certo punto, resterà soltanto il gorilla, capace (grazie a un cambio di luci repentino e a un calcolato “sbalzo di tensione” che oscura la scena per un paio di secondi) di balzare fuori dalla sua stanza segreta e sfondare la gabbia per gettarsi sul pubblico.

L’effetto, come già detto, era stato pensato per il teatro. Gli attori avrebbero avuto la possibilità di fingere un combattimento o un dialogo con uno spettro realistico. Il vero problema erano però i soldi: sembrava una follia riadattare tutti i teatri soltanto perché Amleto avesse finalmente la possibilità di parlare con uno spettro del padre più “evanescente” del solito.

Oggi la tecnica del “fantasma di Pepper” è utilizzata invece, oltre che nei circhi, anche in molti musei scientifici e culturali, per movimentare la didattica di alcune esibizioni.

Pagina Wikipedia (in inglese) sul Pepper’s Ghost.