The Original Sexy Beast

An exhilarating new Tarzan exhibition in Paris celebrates the high, low, and pop culture meaning of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man. Anthony Haden-Guest swings by.

A weathered man was playing the sax alongside the Seine as our cab turned into the Musée du Quai Branly. Then to our left, a startlingly close Eiffel Tower leaped into the sky. More perhaps than any other great city, Paris wallows in its dreams and it seemed appropriate that we were going to a show rooted in a dream, albeit one born far from here, the just-opened mixed media mini-extravaganza: Tarzan! Or Rousseau Amongst the Waziri. The museum was opened by Jacques Chirac in June 2006 and has replaced the old-fangled Musée de l’Homme as a venue to show non-Western arts and artifacts. It’s the work of France’s best-known starchitect, Jean Nouvel, who delivered not one of his skyline-hogging stunners but an agglomeration of unpretentious spaces where it’s the objects and images on view that knock your eye out.

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We skedaddled through another show on the premises, The Jazz Century. Carl van Vechten’s 1936 photographs of Bessie Smith, caricatures by Vanity Fair’s Miguel Covarrubias, a 1919 Man Ray, Jazz, and a Mondrian sketch for Broadway Boogie-Woogie hung alongside material that I don’t think we’ll be seeing in a New York or London museum any time soon, such as a photograph of two performers in blackface belting out My Little Zulu Baby, Paul Colin caricatures and sheet music for A Darktown Cakewalk. But French culturati tend to take a robust attitude to this guilt-edged terrain, as in: That’s the way things were, deal with it!

All in all, Jazz was an appropriate aperitif for Tarzan!, a deliciously over-the-top show, which was the brainchild of Stephane Martin, president of the museum, and curated by an anthropologist, Roger Boulay. It’s an unashamed piece of creative curating and I say unashamed because “creative curators,” by and large, are cultural apparatchiks who build their careers by folding the works of serious artists into their own not always convincing academic structures. But here Boulay and Martin have delivered something rich and strange and very much their own.

The ape man, the enduring pop myth at the core of the show, first swung on a creeper in Tarzan of the Apes, a 1912 pulp by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a Chicagoan who was unfamiliar with Africa but had read his Kipling. Tarzan, the son and heir of a British milord, Lord Greystoke, hit the spot and Burroughs, a born entrepreneur, was soon pioneering a trail to be followed in later decades by the originators of Superman and Batman, by seeing to it that his creation was embedded in comic strips and comic books, radio serials, movies—there would be 46 of these, not including the last and best, Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke—and every sort of promotional ephemera. And the spirit of the Chicagoan—who ended his days in that part of Southern California now known as Tarzana—is mighty yet. A prominent sign in the museum reads: TARZAN OWNED BY EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS INC AND USED BY PERMISSION and as with the ape man’s own treetop ululations, this is both boast and warning.

Tarzan imagery dominates. Some comes from the movies—which Burroughs seldom cared for—but the comic visuals dominate, especially the dramatic inklings of Burne Hogarth, one of the greats of early 20th-century American popular arts, which are here both in cutouts and as original sheets, loaned by the French collector, dealer and publisher of such material, Bernard Mahe. But Tarzan is also the armature for a heady display which reaches way beyond the simple chronicling of a pop phenomenon. After all, the French have form where a preoccupation with non-Western cultures is concerned. Within the Musée du Branly, for instance, is the Theatre Claude Levi-Strauss, a memorial to the author of Tristes Tropiques, and Paris was not only where Josephine Baker and La Revue Negre found glory but also where first Derain, then Picasso focused on the tribal carvings, which had been imported as colonial souvenirs, and transmitted that huge energy into their art.

The visually arresting tribal objects in the show include scarred and scored hide shields, furred shields, hippo-toothed pendants and, in particular, some cloth-covered fetich statuettes from Senufo and Cameroon that throw off a scary force field any sculptor would die for. But Boulay is making no anachronistic attempt to forge links between Tarzan and early Modernism. This show is about a state of mind, a Western yearning for an Africa compounded of reality fragments and fantasy. It can, as such, be compared to the 19th-century Western school of “Orientalism” (which was bitterly attacked on these grounds by the late Edward Said). I was reminded of being given a tour of “Dracula castles” in Romania where some tourist traffic has been inspired by the vampire nobleman created by Bram Stoker from scraps of knowledge about the real-life monster, Vlad Drakul. And Stoker had no more visited Transylvania than Burroughs Africa.

Tarzan was soon pioneering a trail to be followed in later decades by the originators of Superman and Batman.

Boulay walked us around the show. We were surrounded by jungle noise, including insectoid rattles and scrapings, grunts, and birdcalls.

Where did the fictive Tarzan actually operate, I asked. “He moved a lot,” he said. “He was in East Africa. He went to the west. Gabon, the Congo.”

One small space has a movie playing on the far wall and on either side wall are publicity shots of the actors who portrayed the ape man, including Elmo Lincoln, Herman Brix, Ron Ely, Buster Crabbe, Dennis Miller, and the best-known of them, the Princeton dropout Lex Barker, who was the 12th Tarzan, and the sixth, Johnny Weissmuller, the winner of five Olympic golds for swimming in the 1920s, who made 12 movies (including The Adventures of Tarzan in New York, during which he noted acutely “Stone jungle!”).

Wall texts taken from comic books—TRAPPED IN A PIT OF IMMENSE PROPORTIONS, TARZAN PONDERED OVER THE SITUATION. WHAT MANNER OF BEAST WAS THIS HUGE TRAP INTENDED FOR?—have the potency Noel Coward attributed to cheap music. Disparate elements in the installation include first editions of Burroughs novels—“I got it on eBay” Boulay says of the German volume—a vitrine of Tarzanesque comic books with names like Kali and Zembla and umpteen plastic figurines.

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“Voilà!” said Boulay, indicating an assemblage he had put together himself using pieces—Batman and Spiderman both figure—he had either acquired himself or borrowed from private collections. “When you are looking for popular culture, the big museums have nothing!” he said.

Stuffed fauna on view include a lion, a panther, a 20-foot crocodile, and a small dik-dik, a species of antelope, this being an allusion to the antelope upon which Tarzan escaped from the Empire of the Ants. “He is like Gulliver. He rides the little antelope like a horse,” Boulay rejoiced. Further graphics detail Tarzan’s adventures with dinosaurs, ball-breaking Amazons, and a proto-surrealist encounter with the Onononoes, huge-headed beings with alarming grins and upswept wings of hair, like talk-show hosts more than ready for prime-time.

There are also pieces that belong in the show only by poetic association. There are neo-classical late 19th-century canvases— Young Hercules Drawing His Bow by Toussaint Dubreuil—along with a skull of the notorious fake Piltdown Man, for instance. There are copies of She and King Solomon’s Mines by that other jungle fabulist, Rider Haggard, references to Walt Disney’s Jungle Book, Peter Jackson’s King Kong and a poster for La Belle at la Bete at the Folies Bergeres.

Yes, the language of the texts is sometimes overexcited— Tarzan is an ancient hero. He is the brother of Hercules and the stepbrother of Romulus and Remus—and Boulay is not exactly inventing the wheel when he makes the case that pop culture, OK low culture if you like, at its most powerful draws on the well as high culture. But it is an exhilarating, if giddying show. And the visual evidence he has assembled includes such great stuff as an ad for Lavazza —The Italian Espresso Experience, which channels the aforementioned Romulus and Remus; a sequence showing Marlene Dietrich emerging from a chunky gorilla suit in Blonde Venus; and a 2009 spot for Guerlain’s L’Homme, in which we see quick cuts of a tiger, a lion, an ape, and a creeper-ready jungle guy. This happens to be by Jean-Paul Goude, the designer, who shot a picture of disco diva Grace Jones for New York magazine in 1978 which turned her into a gay icon, and that was when Manhattan truly was a “stone jungle.”

Toward the end of the show, Boulay, clearly not one to miss a trick, pays tribute to Green Tarzan. Nor is this a flight of fancy. In one of the movies he protects the elephants from creepy white hunters. “Tarzan is set up in contradiction to the idea of a lion tamer,” Boulay says. “He has a real relation. He doesn’t hunt for pleasure.” Or as one of the wall texts puts it: Of all the superheroes Tarzan is the one with the greatest power to save the planet. High, low, this is no time to be choosy.

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Anthony Haden-Guest writes a weekly column on art collecting for the Financial Times. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Times (London), and many other publications. He is the author of several books, including True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World. He lives in New York and London.