Dismantling Artistic Borders: On “Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being”

Jarry manuscript

Throughout his life, Alfred Jarry rarely held still. His is a body of work which defies easy classification, even in its more granular forms. As a writer alone, Jarry’s writings include fiction, plays, essays, and philosophy — and his work as a writer only accounts for a fraction of the art created in his 34 years on this planet. 

Alfred Jarry: The Carnival of Being, a new exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum through May 10,  does an impressively concise job of exploring Jarry’s work and his influence across a handful of rooms. Situated there are Jarry’s collaborations with others, a handful of his forays into book arts, and some of the sketches and drawings that display his satirical and surreal spirit. 

Jarry art

There are other small delights to be found in the captions accompanying the works shown. This includes a passing reference to Jarry’s pet owls in an 1894 letter from Henri Rousseau. (They were in good health, Rousseau informed Jarry.) And the progression of the exhibit, which begins with woodcuts and riffs on medieval manuscripts, takes viewers through to Jarry’s later work — including an image of his recurring character Pére Ubu looking appropriately ornate as he stands in one corner of an image one could imagine secluded monks illuminating at some point. 

Evergreen Review cover

The Carnival of Being also demonstrates Jarry’s influence, which one can see both explicitly and in passing mentions of works that have gone on to inspire other iconoclastic figures. Alternately, he’s one of the only artists one can imagine influencing both the anti-fascist forces of the Spanish Civil War and J.G. Ballard in equal measure. It’s an impressive education in the works of an artist who embraced virtually every artistic avenue open to him — and created a few of his own. 


All images courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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