PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Tarzan swings out of the African jungle and into France’s showcase museum of indigenous art this month in an exhibition that sets out to illustrate one of modern pop culture’s most enduring myths.
The exhibition “Tarzan!” is an exception for the Quai Branly Museum, set up by former President Jacques Chirac as a center for the so-called “primary arts” of Africa, the Pacific, the Americas and Asia.
It has little to say about any real African culture, instead focusing on the exotic web of images and mythology behind the King of the Apes and his mate Jane.
“For a good part of the 20th century, popular culture has got its inspiration from the non-European world,” said Stephane Martin, director of the Quai Branly museum. “This is a good synthesis of the way popular culture has looked at Africa.”
Created in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a restless former soldier, prospector and publicity agent from Chicago who never set foot in Africa, Tarzan was an instant success, with over 20 novels translated into 56 languages, thousands of comic strips and dozens of films.
Immortalized onscreen by former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, the image of Tarzan, swinging through the trees with his yodeled cry “Or-ah-uh-ah-aaah-ah-uh-ah-uh-aah!,” has remained anchored in the modern imagination ever since.
But Tarzan’s jungle realm, populated variously by helpful apes, savage cannibals, tigers, sultry beauties clad in leopard skins and the lost descendants of Roman legionaries, is a purely imaginary product of early 20th century America.
“Burroughs was a fantastic sort of sponge, soaking up all kinds of stories, random facts and images,” said Roger Boulay, the exhibition’s curator.
He drew on a hodgepodge of influences ranging from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Rudyard Kipling and the story of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome who were suckled by a wolf.
“It doesn’t tell us anything about Africa at all,” said Boulay. “What it tells us about is the some of the ways our culture has seen Africa.”
The exhibition features photographs, books, original plates from many of the comic strips by masters of the genre like Burne Hogarth, as well as a special stand where visitors can try to win a trip to Africa by imitating Tarzan’s famous cry.
There are several extracts from films ranging from “Tarzan of the Apes” in 1918 to the Weissmuller movies of the 1930s and the 1984 epic “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan.”
The now-proverbial exchange “Me Tarzan, you Jane” does not feature, however. It was apparently a joking comment by Weissmuller that he never actually said onscreen.
But the exhibition shows that Burroughs’ hero was a far more articulate character than the tongue-tied hunk of the screen — the son of a British aristocrat who spoke English, French and the language of apes and had a smattering of Latin as well.
It looks at the way the myth of Tarzan rides roughshod over genuine African cultures as well as the casual racism implicit in the story of a white man ruling alone in the African forest.
But as if to show that the myth of Tarzan still resonates, the exhibition also looks at ways in which he can be seen as the first green superhero, fighting ivory poachers equipped with just his loincloth, a knife and a jungle vine.
The exhibition runs from June 16 to September 27.