Prophet of the Avant-Garde

You are free to see in Mister Ubu as many allusions as you like, or, if you prefer, just a plain puppet, a schoolboy’s caricature of one of his teachers who represented to him everything in the world that is grotesque.
—Alfred Jarry, address to the audience at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, 1896

In a career spanning just thirteen years, Jarry produced an eclectic body of work that has reverberated in the art and literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Writers and artists have drawn upon Jarry’s work at moments of historical and cultural change, most acutely on the eve of the Second World War and at the advent of counterculture movements in Europe and America. A metaphor for political corruption and injustice, Ubu—like the spiral on his belly—is also a symbol of pataphysics and its infinite applications in the conception of alternative realities. The character also stands in for the author himself as an oracle of life’s absurdities and as an icon of the subversive imagination. Jarry’s adoption of Ubu as an alter ego, paralleled in his use of puppets, technology, and appropriated texts and imagery as “original” works of art, continues to resonate in the indirect gestures of the readymade and other idea-based art. Works in this section point to some of the evidence of Jarry’s continuing legacy in the modern era.