In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wide Angle 18.3 (1996) 101-106

Book Review

Étienne-Gaspard Robertson:
La Vie d'un Fantasmagore

Erik Barnouw

Étienne-Gaspard Robertson: La Vie d'un Fantasmagore. Brussels, Le Préamble, 1990. by Françoise Levie

This fascinating work concerns the showman whose Fantasmagorie, a "spectral" performance, premiered in Paris in the late 1790s, radiated international shockwaves, and was avidly imitated. The horrors of the French Revolution still haunted many people, which must help to explain the show's impact. Ingenious in its technology, it is now seen as a landmark in the prehistory of cinema. It also has a history of its own, which Levie has richly illuminated.

"Robertson" was actually a Belgian named Étienne-Gaspard Robert, born in Liège on the Meuse river near Germany--an industrial and cultural center dominated by a cathedral and the palace of prince-bishops who long ruled the area and were powers in the Holy Roman Empire. The boy seemed at first destined for the priesthood; enrolling in a seminary, he became "l'Abbé Robert." But he meanwhile studied at an art school, won first prize in its exhibition of student work, and was also caught up in scientific excitements of the time including balloon flight and the magic lantern. He was introduced to the lantern by a Liège inventor who hoped to improve this still little-known device. Levie observes that the diverse interests of the young Robert all seem to have contributed to the amazing achievements of "Robertson."

He apparently worked out the details for his Fantasmagorie while still in Liège. In his late twenties he moved to Paris and, as a showman, renamed himself "Robertson." (It is not clear why; did an English name carry more weight?) He specialized in summoning back from the dead the spirits of famous people [End Page 101] who had perished in the French Revolution. In 1799, in a stroke of genius, he secured for his show an abandoned Capucine monastery by the Place Vendome. Everything about the location dovetailed with his performances. A spectator en route to Fantasmagorie passed an array of gravestones and sepulchers, then walked along a corridor decorated with skulls. Robertson added mysterious sound effects including thunder-like rumbles and ghostly music performed by unseen musicians. By the time spectators reached the inner chapel, the show place, they already felt themselves in a world of the spirits.

IMAGE LINK= Robertson was a deft performer. He had scientific explanations. He spoke of a "galvanic fluid" that made it possible for the departed to assume once more, briefly, a shape visible to the living. His training as "l'Abbé Robert" enabled him to speak also in religious terms. His varied phenomena made use of two distinct technologies based on the magic lantern. Both had been used by other showmen, but apparently not with the expertise shown by Robertson. The first was rear projection, by which he introduced his audience to many weird creatures of the spirit world, all via slides created by him. For these [End Page 102] effects the screen concealed the projecting lantern. The instrument was mounted on wheels, which enabled him to zoom his phenomena into focus, and later to fade them out into a blur. He often ended a performance with a skeleton stalking the screen--"the fate that awaits us all!" Robertson's other technique was more extraordinary. In front of the audience, on a sort of altar, stood a coal-burning brazier. At some point in his performance Robertson, with suitable incantations in the semi-darkness, would toss chemicals onto the burning coals, producing a heavy smoke. He would then summon, from the realm of the dead, a popular patriot such as Jean Paul Marat, stabbed to death in his bath some six years earlier but not forgotten. Suddenly a face would appear in the smoke--gaunt but clearly recognizable. In the twisting smoke the spirit seemed to writhe slightly, or even to roll its eyes. Sepulchral vocal effects were added by a ventriloquist engaged by Robertson. Many in the audience are said to have fallen to their knees...