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Dead medium: Robertson's Final Phantasmagoria
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): "Etienne Gaspard Robertson at Pre Lachaise Cemetery" by David Liot Muse des arts et mtiers: *La Revue,* Sept. 1994, n 8, p.57-61.
MUSEE DES ARTS ET METIERS - 292, rue Saint-Martin - 75003 PARIS - FRANCE


"Paris' Pre-Lachaise cemetery was designed as a 'walk-about cemetery,' a notion based on the English-style gardens which were so fashionable during the Romantic era. It was established in 1804 in a 17 hectare park, and its layout was conceived by the architect Brongniart.

"It is here that the tomb of Etienne-Gaspard Robertson can be found, built several months after his death in 1837 and designed by Girardin, the architect.

"Very early on, Robertson developed a form of stage- show based on known light projection systems, such as Kircher's lantern. It was an impressive spectacle for its time, using sophisticated effects. The theme of death particularly fascinated the public. More than death and its skeletons, however, Robertson was adept at making the most of the 'resurrection' theme, through the projection of portraits of the deceased, some of them public figures, or specially requested projections for inconsolable families. He made such virtual reincarnations credible through procedures which bore witness to his talent as a technician.

"Able to combine his knowledge as a man of science with his artistic sensibility, he has often been considered as one of the forerunners of cinema, indeed of the audio-visual media as a whole. He was a true director who knew how to use constantly updated special effects: the diffusion of incense, mysterious sound effects, the importance of light in reproducing the climatic effects of daylight, contre-jour, etc, and above all, the beginnings of a sound-track... with the help of a ventriloquist "able to make the dead speak" and the use of a harmonica with a high-pitched sound resulting from the chiming of glass bells.

"Robertson's monument looks like an invitation to an 'imaginary voyage.' Although it has no chapel, it is imposing in size, measuring four metres in height. Two bas reliefs, located on the sides of the monument, evoke the physicist's tumultuous life.

"The first is a reminder of Robertson the aerostat specialist. It shows a small boy, leaning on a safety barrier, watching attentively before a crowd of people as an aerostat lifts up into the sky.

"The second is more curious. Guarded by two owls, it depicts two symmetrical groups which appear to be confronting one another: a group representing the dead and another representing the living move back to make way for a floating winged skeleton playing a trumpet. This bas relief is anecdotal, evoking a scene from a phantasmagorical show.

"Unlike the surrounding tombs, there is no trace of a portrait of the physicist and the theme of death is given a high profile. Above the two bas reliefs and at the base of the half-draped sarcophagus which tops the monument, a row of young girls' heads alternate with winged skulls. These somewhat disconcerting figures are a reminder of those unfailingly successful phantasmagorical themes wherein woman is a character representative of Love and Death, holding the secret of the great mystery of our origins. This is no longer the standardized image of the neo-classical woman, but a virtual image.

"Could the winged skeleton playing a trumpet, hovering above the scene of the last judgement, be a reference to the trumpet-playing automaton which Robertson liked so much? Or does it, in a wider sense, evoke the phantasmagorist's attraction to automatons? Robertson had bought from the famous musician J. Maelzel a trumpet- playing android which could play as well as a musician. On the monument, the automaton has disappeared: he is nothing more than a skeleton, proving that even a machine can die and that the instrument alone survives, thanks to the universal nature of music."