The noble savage

Observations on Tarzan

What is it about a man in a loincloth? It’s not just the abs, or the fallen-from-grace appeal of an aristocratic orphan brought up by apes. It’s not even the maiden Jane, who morphs from a sexually retiring, hairy mass in 1918 to a leopard-print-bikini-donning temptress in the 1940s. As his catalogue of assailants has found: it’s hard to pin Tarzan down. He’s been claimed as action hero, ecologist, polyglot, grunter, moral arbiter and, er, sexist and racist.

In any case, the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris’s fourth most popular museum, has devoted its summer splash to the ape man and his loincloth, in all its varying hem lengths (his tummy button was once strictly off limits).

Tarzan has had a lot on his wooden plate since the US drifter Edgar Rice Burroughs – a one-time gold miner, advertising salesman, scrap-metal dealer and cowboy – invented him in 1912. He’s been wrestling leopards and crocodiles, dodging quicksand and flying axes, facing down man-eating fish and perfecting his yodel-of-the-wild for the cameras. He is the star of dozens of books and many more films, comics, cartoon spin-offs, board games, ice-cream brands and pinball machines. There’s even a district of Los Angeles called Tarzana, named after Burroughs’s Tarzana Ranch.

What’s it all about? The exhibition is proud to say we can’t be sure, but philosophy, pop culture and prejudice are somehow all involved. The curator, Roger Boulay, tries to isolate influences – the myth of Romulus and Remus; Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 Jungle Book; Rousseau’s penchant for nature over civilisation; Darwin’s ideas on the origins of mankind; the frisson of excitement that comes from stealing white women away from exotic and erotic horrors; and a bit of eugenics, too.

Africa itself gets a rum deal. Tarzan – whose name means “white skin” in ape language – has swung through an invented image of the continent. Burroughs never went there, and his basic errors include putting tigers in the jungle, which don’t prowl Africa at all. The danger-filled backdrop exists to make Britain’s feral child look good and to show him as its lord: an unknown land filled with bit-part Africans who are either meek and the first to be killed or violent and cannibalistic “frenzied savages”,

as the comic-strip speech bubbles so regularly say. The odd sense of white supremacy is never far away.

The show does little to counter the dodgier overtones: it is a menagerie of Tarzan-worship and vaguely related objects – circus toys, superheroes, stuffed animals, spears and King Kong (a parable for how America received mixed marriages). You even get to see the cartoon Jane naked, before the censors set to work. Boulay’s last show was called “The Aristocrat and His Cannibals”, and this curiously nostalgic show rejoices in, rather than overturns, the clichés.

“Tarzan doesn’t know he’s a lord but he is,” says Boulay, quoting the French phrase Bon sang ne saurait mentir (“good blood doesn’t lie”). “When you are completely savage you can still see if you have aristocratic blood in you.” So much for a level playing-jungle.

“Tarzan! or Rousseau and the Waziris” runs to 27 September at the Musée du Quai Branly (www.quaibranly.fr)