Teddy Bears, Robots, Dolls Cavort in Paris Exhibition: Review

Chicken Robot
Baby chicken robot from Japan (1965), by Yoneya Toys Company, at the Grand Palais. Source: Reunion des Musees Nationaux via Bloomberg

Christmas is three months away, yet a new Paris exhibition will get you right in the mood.

“Of Toys and Men” at the Grand Palais traces the history of dolls, teddy bears, toy trains and other playthings from antiquity to the present.

It’s a gigantic show, though by no means complete: You’ll look in vain for scientific or educational toys, marionettes or musical instruments.

The Puritans had a point when they dismissed Christmas as a pagan feast thinly concealed beneath a Christian veneer. The Saturnalia, the merriest event of the Roman calendar, feted around Dec. 17, were an occasion for exchanging gifts, chiefly wax candles and terra cotta dolls.

One of those dolls, from the first century B.C., is in the show. It has a hole in its belly; when you lifted the lid, you discovered a fetus.

The vast majority of modern dolls represent girls, not mothers. One of the most successful, created in 1905, was Bleuette, “The Doll That Goes With Fashion.” It was mailed to subscribers of “La Semaine de Suzette,” a weekly for girls, who were then expected to keep its look up to date.

Elizabeth and Margaret, the future U.K. queen and her sister, didn’t have to worry about fashion: France and Marianne, the dolls they received from the French president when he crossed the Channel for a state visit in 1938, came with a dowry of no less than 360 pieces of clothing designed by leading Parisian couturiers.

Princely Steed

Another toy devised for a blue-blooded child is the mechanical horse of the Imperial Prince, the only son of Napoleon III. A century later, princely tastes had changed. Six-year-old Andrew, one of Elizabeth’s sons, got a kiddie version of James Bond’s Aston Martin sports car (achieving a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour).

Toys clarify role models. While girls were supposed to prepare themselves for housework and motherhood, boys were encouraged to seek adventure. From chariots to airplanes you find all forms of locomotion at the Grand Palais.

Toy soldiers, on the other hand, seem to have fallen out of fashion. Once regarded as an early preparation for military service and war, they have become collectors’ items for retired generals and amateur strategists. Today’s heroes, the exhibition demonstrates, are more likely to come from comics than from military history.

Religion, too, has lost much of its grip on juvenile imagination. The show includes an amazing number of child-sized chasubles, vestments, bishops’ hats, crosiers and monstrances. Today, it would be difficult to make a living from such a product range.

The good old teddy bear, we are told, had two fathers -- Richard Steiff of Germany, who created him in 1902, and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who lent him his name. The U.S. president refused to shoot a black bear his fellow hunters had tied to a tree, a noble gesture that linked him to the animal.

Among the many robots in the show the most hilarious is a table with a waiter serving a bunch of unusual diners -- pigs.

“Des Jouets et des Hommes” runs through Jan. 23, 2012, and then travels to Helsinki. The sumptuous catalog (50 euros or $68.49) comes in two versions, sky blue for boys, pink for girls. Information: http://www.rmn.fr or +33-1-4413-1730.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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