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#Roland #Paris #Created #Jester #WorthPoint

His story is almost unknown, yet his work is everywhere. That is, at least, if you like the particular movement during which he produced his sculptures. The movement was Art Deco, the medium was (often) sculpture, and the man was Roland Paris.

Paris was born in 1894 in Austria, worked in Berlin, and, according to one account, died mere hours before the end of World War II after living in Nazi Germany. There is one book about him, and the biographies of his life on art websites are slim at best. The only way to know him without a heavy investment of your time is through his work.

Pierrots were one of the frequent subjects of Art Deco and German Expressionist sculptor Roland Paris; he infused them with a strong sense of emotion that outshined their simplicity, like this sad bronze creation.

Paris’s Background

What to make of someone with such a distinct output but a life so—intentionally or not—mysterious? The faces presented in Paris’s work are all casual seekers have to go on, and, enigmatic as all art is, they tell us everything and nothing.

Where Paris studied, under whom, how long he spent at it, and whether he abandoned any other ambitions for his work isn’t free or public knowledge. He’s rumored to have produced or at least been associated with producing masks, postcards, paintings, sketches, possibly a book of his poetry, and other primarily two-dimensional works. Nonetheless, Paris is best known for his sculptures. In the scant available information, Paris is cited as an Art Deco artist and a German Expressionist.

His Creations

Roland Paris would have been in his early twenties when the 1920s started to unfurl, bringing new promises of license and the giddiness of progress after the dark years of turmoil and war. His sculptures were small and decorative, not the kind of six-foot-tall monsters that dominate art museums; they were also usually made in bronze. Like minor personal gestures—the casually dismissive flick of a wrist, a smile just successfully holding back tears, a distant look in a pair of eyes trying to hold your own—they can be easily overlooked, lost in the shadows of larger, more significant pieces.

The dominant form he chose was that of the jester, which, whatever gender it appears in, seems cunningly androgynous. Fitting in with the Art Deco aesthetic, the figures are slender and seem to lightly partake in the era’s penchant for the long-limbed grace of Egyptian friezes.

Vintage 1930 art deco bookends by Roland Paris
Paris, who was born in Austria in 1894 and died hours before the end of World War II, had a deft hand with humor as well as sadness. Here, he offered “Wisdom and Poetry,” a jester with an owl and a magician with a songbird. Which is which? Perhaps that’s the ultimate joke.

Unlike his contemporary, the Romanian Art Deco titan Demétre Chiparus, Paris’s works radiate with emotion. Chiparus’s sculptures seem comparatively decadent, not for their hard-edged fine detail but for the indifference they give off. Dancers by Chiparus, for instance, do not appear to care if we notice them or are provoked to feel anything. They drape themselves into postures of nonchalance (dubbed a “consumptive slump” when encountered elsewhere), more posed and static than caught mid-whirl.

On the other hand, Paris infuses everything he does with a tenderness bordering on sentimentality. He clearly sympathizes with the Pierrot figure, the sad clown with a broken heart.

Of course, as any clown’s primary function is to be silly and fun, many of Paris’s jesters are having a good time. “Wisdom and Poetry” (sometimes referred to as “Bird Watchers”) makes for a thoughtful set of bookends, but which figure is which attribute? The wise owl is perched on the jester’s knee, while the clever songbird rests on the magician’s, seemingly a transposition of their roles. The good-natured joke is ultimately on the viewer.

Bronze butterfly dancer roland paris
A butterfly dancer keeps perfect poise, reminding the viewer a bit of a Degas ballerina but with a sense of self-possession all her own.

Other Works of Roland Paris

Roland Paris’s work does venture outside the clownish—his attention to creating female figures is typical of a male sculptor of the era. “The Butterfly Dancer” seems to reference the self-containment of Degas’s ballerinas with an added whimsical sense of enjoyment. His “Pierrette” almost one-ups her dancing sister, with a very high self-regard (and an equally high, tilted-up nose).

Other areas of Paris’s work cover the classical territory. “Diana with Bow” is scant in detail and has the blank feel of a caryatid about her, but her long-waisted shape and curved posture suggest an entire scene to which we aren’t privy. Likewise, “Secret Nymph and Faun,” a less straightforward work that leans heavily on metaphor, given the figures’ disparate sizes, is straight from ancient Mediterranean mythology and shot through with a quiet, childlike sense of wonder.

Paris’s Impact on Later Generations

Some of his works, while not name-checked, seem like they must have influenced future generations’ creative endeavors. This influence makes sense, as pop culture often references more profound pieces of high culture. To wit, it’s hard to look at Paris’s “Masked Dancer” and not see a bit of Frank Gorshan’s prancing Riddler character from the campy 1960s television version of Batman. In the same way, his female jester figures’ echo may have carried into the future to inspire the 1990s animated Batman’s dangerous damsel Harley Quinn. Did their creators see Paris’s work and add some of his vision to their own?

Similarly, you must wonder if Paris didn’t have some influence, however remote, on the designs of at least a few minor characters who popped up in films. For example, his “The Aesthete” could have climbed off his pedestal, swapped his flower for candy, and joined the Lollipop Guild from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz without much trouble. The figure’s uptilted face is also reminiscent of the New Yorker’s mascot, Eustace Tilley, drawn by Rea Irvin around the same time.

It’s a shame that Roland Paris never lived to see what he might have found and created after World War II, with powers grown greater from age and experience. We are left to imagine what it would have been: whimsical, fanciful, or even menacing, but with his unmistakable touch.

Shannon Watkins is a journalist and writer from Virginia who enjoys baking cookies, reading, watching TV shows and movies, and shameless loafing about.

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