In the 19th and early 20th century, everyone worshiped at the altar of Sarah Bernhardt. She was a stage actress at a time when the theater was the equivalent of a stadium, a global celebrity who ushered in the very concept.
Born in Paris in 1844, Bernhardt was a sickly child whose mother preferred to ignore her. As an adult, she insisted on standing out. She captivated theatergoers with her hypnotic voice (Victor Hugo called it “golden”) and her bombastic performance style. No role, no métier, was too ambitious: She was a writer, painter, sculptor, director, entrepreneur and philanthropist, too. The newspapers amplified the legend of the “Divine Sarah,” as did the sundry artists and writers who counted her as their muse.
The fanaticism surrounding her was comparable to that inspired by the Beatles or Taylor Swift; her devotees made shrines and gathered below her hotel window; reporters tracked her movements like proto-paparazzi.
Bernhardt may have been an object of extraordinary fascination, but nothing about her was passive. She played for the camera, generating her public image on her own terms with dynamism and feverish originality. Bernhardt created herself relentlessly — filling her memoirs with tall tales about her origins, living her life on a scale that matched the epics in which she starred — as an act of resistance. Only she would define her, and even now, 100 years after her death in 1923, she dares us to try and pin her down.
This roguish quality of Bernhardt’s is what drew me to a 1910 self-portrait that can be seen in the exhibition, “Sarah Bernhardt: And the Woman Created the Star,” running through Aug. 27 at the Petit Palais in Paris. It’s an oil painting of the actress as a clown, smiling slyly. Bernhardt went on to play another clown in Jean Richepin’s 1883 play “Pierrot the Murderer” — a famous photograph of the actress in her Pierrot get-up is on display in the exhibition — but the self-portrait struck me as a statement of purpose.
In the 19th century, the clown was something like a poet, walking the line between reality and fiction and imagining an alternative to the status quo. It’s no wonder that Bernhardt saw herself in such a figure. On and offstage, her showmanship placed her in opposition to the everywoman bound by the strictures of France’s Third Republic.
Bernhardt dazzled because she was free. “She did whatever she wanted and didn’t care what others thought,” said Annick Lemoine, the director of the Petit Palais and one of the co-curators of the Bernhardt exhibition. “She loved men and women. She traveled the world. She had a son out of wedlock and raised him the way she wanted to. She had no fear.”
At 18, Bernhardt joined the prestigious company of the Comédie Française theater, in Paris, but she wouldn’t stay long. A spat broke out between a veteran actress and the feisty newcomer, which led to Bernhardt’s dismissal — yet another upheaval in the young woman’s already tumultuous life. Her father was out of the picture and her mother, a Parisian courtesan, had shuttled her daughter around France — to a boarding school, a countryside nursery, a nunnery.
Bernhardt, it seems, became accustomed to the hustle, and not long after she was kicked out of the Comédie Française she broke out in an 1868 revival of “Kean” by Alexandre Dumas. From ingénue to full-fledged luminary, she tackled gutsy parts like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Hamlet — characters she inhabited, like a wild spirit, rather than merely played. She took her greatest hits on the road and performed for audiences around Europe and the United States.
Known for her over-the-top death scenes, Bernhardt had a flair for melodrama, and in her private life, too, she was eccentric with a taste for the macabre. One of her many hats was adorned with a taxidermized bat and she had a photograph taken of herself in a coffin playing dead.
Those are among the more than 100 objects from private collections and public institutions around the world on display at the Petit Palais, along with artworks by and about Bernhardt, her stage costumes, personal belongings, advertising campaigns, photographs, clips from silent films and phonograph recordings of her voice. (Naturally, she was among the first to exploit the era’s new technologies for self-promotion.)
Bernhardt’s greatest roles resembled the personas of David Bowie. She didn’t bring, say, the Empress Théodora or the doomed singer Floria Tosca to life so much as she absorbed them into her own. Passing through a room in the exhibition dedicated to her theater characters is like encountering the bat-cave where she stores the suits and props for her alter egos. In the latter half of her career, bored by the tragic female roles that were her claim to fame, she played teenagers and men — and some teenage boys — as a woman well into her middle age.
“Bernhardt was someone who demanded the right to be extraordinary,” said the American playwright Theresa Rebeck in a video interview. Rebeck’s play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” which premiered on Broadway in 2018, looks at the backstage drama surrounding the actress’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s drama. When Hamlet, a neurotic depressive in most productions, was given the Bernhardt treatment in 1899, the character paradoxically appeared steelier and more overtly masculine than usual, irking traditionalist critics and teasing queer ideas about the fluid nature of identity. “People think that I completely reimagined the history of that staging for the play,” added Rebeck, “but I really didn’t change that much.”
Rebeck said she was inspired to write about Bernhardt after visiting the Alphonse Mucha Museum in Prague, home to the towering posters of the actress that have become synonymous with the curvilinear designs of Art Nouveau. In 1894, Bernhardt had commissioned illustrations from a studio to promote her latest play, “Gismonda,” but the first round of mock-ups was not up to snuff. She demanded new versions, stat, which gave the unknown Mucha, one of the company’s minor employees, his big break.
Mucha went on to design several more posters for Bernhardt’s shows; these lofty works, which depict her like a pagan icon, are also on show at the Petit Palais. Dozens of other artists rendered her likeness: she’s angelic against a golden backdrop in a painting by Jules Masson; a coy mistress in a full-body-length portrait by Georges Clairin. She’s a topless geisha in one sketch, a cartoonish chimera in another.
A pioneering self-brander, Bernhardt would have certainly intuited the power of social media. But unlike the influencers of today, many seemingly hellbent on conjuring an illusion of authenticity, she refused to be anything but larger-than-life. That’s why, like Keanu Reeves or Nicolas Cage, she always played a heightened version of herself. The tension between her irrepressible individuality and dramatic skill produced something rare: stardom.
Sarah Bernhardt: And the Woman Created the Star
Through Aug. 27 at the Petit Palais, in Paris; petitpalias.fr.