Bread & Puppet is founded on the central principle that art should be as basic as bread to life and Peter Schumann still single-handedly bakes traditional sourdough rye bread in a wood fire oven for the thousands of audience members who attend the Theater's performances worldwide. It takes him several days.
The company was actually founded in Munich, Germany, before Peter brought it to Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 1960s, where he carried his tradition of baking and sharing fresh rye bread with the local community. The company's manifesto gave the elitist New York art scene a welcome reality check.
Bread & Puppets proudly declared themselves as peddlers of profound, cheap art. Why, he argued, should those two elements be mutually exclusive? "Art is not a business!" they explained, "Art has to be cheap and available to everybody. It needs to be everywhere…"
I was in college when I first learned about Bread & Puppet, which now occupies a commune in Vermont, and still travels around the country providing cheap art and free bread to anyone who wants or needs it. A friend of mine from college would even go on to join their ranks, and I'd get to see him briefly whenever their iconic bus drive into town. I still think their "Why Cheap Art?" manifest should be a guide for every artist. So if you're not already familiar with them yourself, this retrospective could be a great introduction!
The company has also opened a museum on their Glover, Vermont property. Should you ever find yourself in the area, "Just open the door and turn on the lights when you arrive, and close the door and turn out the lights when you leave."
The Bread and Puppet Museum is a massive accumulation of the puppets, masks, paintings and graphics of the Bread and Puppet Theater, housed in a 150-year-old barn in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, 25 miles south of the Canadian border. It is one of the largest collections of some of the biggest puppets and masks in the world. It was created in 1974 when Bread and Puppet Theater moved to this former dairy farm after a residency at Goddard College, and before that close to a decade in New York City. The museum is full to the brim; its population density is an expression not only of the accumulations of time but of the urgencies which inspired the making of so much stuff: the poverty of the poor, the arrogance of the war-mongers, the despair of the victims, and maybe even stronger than that, the glory of this whole god-given world. And naturally, all this will decay in due course.
The Bread & Puppet Theatre: A Living Museum of American Hippie Culture [Francky Knapp / Messy Nessy Chic]
Image: Walter S. Wantman / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)