Designing Pandemonium: An Art History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

By D. Eric Bookhardt

Design for Proteus Parade Float, 1906, by Bror Anders Wikstrom
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Mardi Gras has long existed as a multi-dimensional phenomenon that reflects both the street and the elite, the mainstream and the esoteric, dark and light, Apollonian and Dionysian--although with Mardi Gras, as with all carnival celebrations, the Dionysian has always held a distinct advantage. Forever skirting the margins between the officially celebrated and the outré or forbidden, it has always been propelled by a spirit of creative anarchy that harks to its origins in the myths and mysteries of pre-Christian antiquity.

Carnival Colorplate, March 1, 1892 Picayune Newspaper 
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The carnival tradition that the French originally brought to New Orleans in the form of Mardi Gras has roots in the ancient Roman winter rites of the Lupercalia and Saturnalia, which over time became orgiastic exercises in excess, as well as in the early Druidic version of carnival in which the kings were chosen by drawing lots (a ritual replicated with our "king cake babies" today) and then sacrificed at the end of their year-long reign. This human sacrifice component was eventually replaced with animals such as Le Boeuf Gras, the fatted ox still seen in the Paris and New Orleans carnivals and from which the name, Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," is derived. Initially opposed by early Roman Catholicism, carnival was too deeply rooted to defeat, so the Church incorporated it as the prelude to Lent. All of which makes it very difficult to explain or comprehend in the context of an America defined by Calvinist and utilitarian rationalist traditions.

Signum Salutus, Hermes 2011

But Mardi Gras does express a psychically atavistic and dreamlike spirit of creative abandon that has artistic parallels in movements such as surrealism and the French symbolists who preceded it. A cursory look at the float and costume designs of the 19th century New Orleans Mardi Gras and their modern equivalents reveals clear correspondences with the work of French symbolists such as Gustave Moreau (left: Jupiter and Semele, 1894) and Odilon Redon, himself a son of Louisiana parents who returned to their native France only after he was conceived. And while carnival has been celebrated here from the settlement's early 18th century beginnings--its earliest name was Point du Mardi Gras--it was only in the latter 19th century that it came into its own in the creative efflorescence that was its golden age, and spawned the gaudy organized parades for which it is known today.

By far the biggest, richest and most diverse city in the South, with a large free black professional class and immigrants from all over the world, antebellum New Orleans attracted characters as varied as Walt Whitman, who wrote for what is now the Times Picayune, and the Afro-Parisian expatriate Jules Lion, whose New Orleans Daguerreotype studio became the first in the South while making him the first African-American professional photographer. He may have even created the first photograph of Whitman, but was also a portrait painter popular with prominent New Orleanians such as the wealthy merchant Asher Moses Nathan (above left, with son), and his subjects included such eminent figures such as Andrew Jackson, among others. By all rights, the Civil War's economic devastation should have put an end to the city's vaunted cultural ferment, yet implausibly it became an even bigger magnet for artists from all over the world in much the way that artists moved here in numbers in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. It was a time when local families maintained second homes in Paris and the Creole femme fatale Virginie Gautreau (immortalized in John Singer Sargent's portrait, Madame X) scandalized that city's salons, even as Edgar Degas, Louisiana Haitian-French on his mother's side, drew inspiration from his origins in a visit that ultimately proved catalytic to the evolution of his style. All of this coincided with carnival's creative renaissance--but only after a period of decline during which it almost had to die in order to be reborn.

 Degas' New Orleans Cotton Exchange features his brother, Achille, extreme 
left,  and his uncle Michel seen polishing his spectacles in the foreground.

The original carnival celebration of the self-designated "Creole" descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers was processional in public yet defined by elaborate private bal masques. Decorous and exclusive, if notoriously hedonistic, they posed a distinct contrast to the laissez-faire celebrations on the streets, where everyone else participated however they could. By the 1850s, the public festivities had been tarnished by the overly aggressive antics of prostitutes and petty criminals to such an extent that ordinary citizens increasingly stayed home. The need for more structured public events was addressed in 1857 when some young American businessmen from Mobile, Alabama, founded the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the first organized Mardi Gras parade with floats and coordinated costumes. Building on an old Mobile New Years parade tradition, the Mistick Krewe took its name from John Milton's literary character, Comus, the sorcerer son of Bacchus and Circe "whose hedonism was equaled only by his guile." The occult demeanor of its first parade, The Demon Actors in Milton's Paradise Lost, set the tone as new parades based on related themes proliferated and the medieval term "krewe" was applied to those organizations as well. From then on, New Orleans' carnival season was marked by a celebration of pagan gods and myths rarely seen since antiquity. (Above: Ishtar figurehead, Hermes 2011)

This love of the fantastic even extended to scientific discoveries, which Comus repurposed to parody public figures in its 1872 pageant The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of Species, inaugurating a tradition of satire that continues in parades such as the bawdily boisterous Krewe du Vieux today. Carnival's underlying spirit was always inherently inclusive, so beyond the formal pageants of the social and business elites, the Mardi Gras renaissance also spawned masking and parade societies across social, cultural and racial lines. The first formal black  Mardi Gras parade, Zulu, right, was founded in 1909 although published reports of spirited black carnival processions date to at least the early 19th century. Some less formal organizations ranged from the black Mardi Gras Indian "tribes," Skull and Bone Men and Baby Doll societies to a varied roster of ethnic and neighborhood groups, gay balls, drag queen pageants, even the all-canine Krewe of Barkus.

Underlying and uniting all this was an indigenous strain of distinctly surrealistic creativity that seemed to arise from unknown origins. Beyond their Milton-inspired demonology, early Comus costume designs featured such iconic figures as the Female Eye, left, seen in its 1869 pageant, The Senses, reflecting the inspiration of an anonymous artist while presaging Odilon Redon's Cyclops studies such as his 1882 Les Origines, right. But many of the later and better documented Mardi Gras parades were designed by known artists, as carnival historian Henri Schindler, a celebrated designer in his own right, has chronicled in a series of sumptuous and scholarly books beginning with his landmark Mardi Gras New Orleans (Flammarion, 1997). Of that pantheon of inspired artists--a group that included Charles Briton, Carlotta Bonnecazze and Jennie Wilde--the most emblematic was Bror Anders Wikstrom. A founder of the Art Association of New Orleans, Wikstrom was a noted maritime and landscape painter active in his native Sweden as well as Paris and New Orleans, where he created legendary Rex and Proteus pageants from 1885 until his death in 1909. Just as Comus' Female Eye presaged Redon, Wikstrom's designs often appeared to anticipate legendary surrealists such as Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.

Bror Anders Wikstrom: Proteus Float Design, 1907

 Despite its illustrious history, much of Mardi Gras became fairly predictable over the course of the twentieth century, and in 1969 Henri Schindler and two other young artists, Paul Poche and Jon Newlin, founded the Societe' de Ste. Anne to recreate the processional artistry ascribed to the early Creoles.

Societe' de Ste. Anne Parade, 2009

Borrowing as well from the baroque extravagance of the Venice carnival, Ste. Anne and its ever-expanding band of artist activists was noteworthy for its success in helping to return Mardi Gras to its proto-surrealist roots. Schindler went on to become the designer of the Comus, Rex and Hermes parades, although Comus ceased parading in 1991 after the city passed an ordinance banning anonymous groups and secret societies from carnival processions. But Rex remains the emblematic Mardi Gras parade and Schindler, below, its legendary designer.

Henri Schindler with The Great Mogul on His Birthday, Hermes 2011

Another benchmark in the art history of Mardi Gras was the Krewe of Clones. Founded by Denise Vallon in 1978 and sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Center as a performance art spectacle, Clones disbanded in 1988 after years of conflict with City Hall over its provocative antics on the streets of the business district. But before long Clones regrouped as the Krewe du Vieux in Faubourg Marigny and the French Quarter, where provocative antics were de rigueur, and where its bawdy and parodic parades continue today. Like the Societe de Ste. Anne, Clones marked an attempt by artists to return Mardi Gras to its freewheeling processional roots, a goal shared by numerous smaller if no less laissez faire groups such as the Krewe of Kosmic Debris. Ultimately, much of Krewe du Vieux's appeal is rooted, like Clones, in its role as an ambulatory performance art troupe with a very visceral approach to social and political satire.

 Krewe du Vieux, 2011

As a fine arts phenomenon Mardi Gras has had its ups and downs, and much of its allure has historically been ascribed to its nature as an inclusive participatory spectacle, so it is probably understandable that many mainstream parades incorporate the flash and dazzle of the contemporary entertainment industry even as they employ talented artists to create and execute predictable, if popular, designs. That is all well and good, but the more profound magic of Mardi Gras lies elsewhere. In that regard, the contemporary keepers of the flame would have to include designers such as Henri Schindler and his associate artists and craftsmen who preserve the standards of the 19th century carnival's golden age. Accolades must also attend those anonymous maskers whose imagination appears boundless and whose costumes spare no detail. On a group level, this description must certainly apply to the Mardi Gras Indian tribes whose outfits have only become more gorgeous and elaborate over time. Once street gangs who greeted rival tribes with occasional violence, the Indians evolved over time to give us such enlightened leaders such as the late Tootie Montana, the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, and Victor Harris, the Big Chief of the Fi Yi Yi tribe, men who inspired not only great designs but also a civic minded and compassionate worldview.  (Above left: Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indian suit, 2009.)

Inside the Rex Den: The Royal Barge and Ganesh, Rex 2011

All of which begs the question: what exactly is carnival as a creative idiom, and why is it important? Although its resonance is obviously atavistic and archetypal, harking to the ancient rituals and mythologies that linger in the recesses of collective memory, there is scant understanding of its true nature and function as an art form. One scholar who has devoted much time and energy to advancing this discussion is Claire Tancons, a native of the French Caribbean department of Guadeloupe. An internationally active New Orleans-based curator who co-curated the Prospect.1 Biennial, Tancons describes the carnival procession as "the opera of the streets, a form of structured and driven psychogeography. It is a prime unifying display mode of creative acts in public space. Processions are to streets what exhibitions are to museums and plays to theatre, and beyond their obvious artistic content, they speak to an aesthetics of the commons." And that sums it up. For cities still inhabited by the spirits of place, as New Orleans clearly is, Mardi Gras is a quintessential mode of expression. (Above Left: Costume for Proteus 1907 by Bror Anders Wikstrom. Below: The Temptation of St. Anthony by Max Ernst, 1945.)

Note: The title, Designing Pandemonium, refers to the inspiration for the first Comus parade, Milton's Paradise Lost, in which "Pandemonium" appears as the capital of hell.

Related: Tulane's Carnival Collection