Tarzan: Hollywood’s mythical African character gets his own exhibition in Paris


The mythical white man in the African jungle, swinging from tree to tree, who as character became a star of film and TV has got his own exhibition in Paris. Musée du quai Branly’s, " TARZAN! ou Rousseau chez les Waziri “ (“Tarzan or Rousseau and the Waziri") exhibition is on until September 27, 2009.

Film makers, broadcasters and more recently green leaders have sought inspiration in this completely mythical character, who became a major influence on millions of people's childhood. Like many successful screen characters, Tarzan came out of a book that was first published in 1912. It was not long before he went multi-media as a cartoon, hero of two popular radio programs, theatre, musicals, TV series, cinema, advertising, accessories, toys and even video games.

The Internet Movie Database lists 89 movies with Tarzan in the title between 1918 and 2008. The word Tarzan in Google gets to more than 12 Millions results. The fictional character, an archetypal feral child raised in the African jungle by apes was the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, an American with a fertile imagination born in Chicago in 1875. Tarzan's jungle upbringing gave him abilities above those of ordinary humans: he is strong, fast and agile, he can recover from fights quickly and he is able to talk to animals. Tarzan later meets with civilization only to reject it, contemptuous of its hypocrisy. He then returns to the wild as a hero, protecting nature and his animals friends.

Through this exhibition, the Musée du quai Branly (quay Branly museum) seeks to explore the myth incarnated by this popular icon, through a series of objects resulting from the collections of several French museums, but also through the original boards drawn for the cartoons, and film clips.

Tarzan is a pretexts to explore imagination and to meet with the african adventure. Indeed, according to his creator, “Tarzan possessed an animal’s stoicism and a man’s intellect,” above all through his link to the African jungle. There was a stereotypical, reconstructed jungle which, while being inhabited by wild animals, was also alternately invaded by Roman armies, anthropoids, Amazons, Ant-men, crusaders, prehistoric men.

Tarzan has come back to life in all the fullness of his different metamorphoses under the mischievous eye of Roger Boulay who curated the Kannibals and Tahitian Women exhibition in the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie [National Museum of African and Oceanian Art] in 2001. Like this previous exhibition, it traces the pre-conceived ideas and seeks out the clichés by revisiting the history of this larger-than-life character and by playing on the different views people have held in relation to him: epic, neoromantic, comical or burlesque.

As the expert Francis Lacassin wrote, “In the techno-mechanical, industrialised and feverish civilisation of the 20th century, Tarzan is like a breath of fresh air. His name evokes the goodness of green plants and growth and the hope of a shared epic all at once.” The route of the exhibitions recalls Burroughs’ sources (Kipling, Rider Haggard, Robida), and also the rapid changes and ups-and-downs Tarzan has undergone. Films, books, posters, photographs, figurines, accessories, sculptures, costumes, paintings, ethnographic objects, outfits, toys, dolls and comic books provide an image of the hero’s world which is both composite and abundant at the same time. The “ape language” and the famous roar are all part of this multi-faceted exotic panorama.

Constantly referenced and exploited, Tarzan of the Apes was quite a success and to this day is published in 56 languages. Tarzan’s series of 22 adventures spanning the years 1914 to 1947 have been published in more than 15 million copies and have led to the production of close to 15,000 comics and 42 feature films not including the innumerable television series and cartoons. As one of the best-known literary characters globally, Tarzan continues to project a certain image of Africa as well as what's called human civilisation to the world. He embraces a form of return to Mother nature and the very foundation of peoples' identities. «Tarzan thought about how fragile the frontier between the primitive and the civilised is» wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs.