The undisputed king of toys, the teddy bear descends on the Musée
des Arts décoratifs to tell his incredible story. Born at the very beginning
of the 20th century, he quickly earned a place for himself in the hearts of
children, dethroning toys whose existence dated back to Antiquity, like
dolls or animals on wheels. Since then, the teddy bear has become the
quasi-universal symbol of childhood, and synonymous with tenderness and
gentleness. But how has the former king of animals, revered for his strength
and feared for his ferocity, transformed into the most popular of toys?
The exhibition begins by recounting the eventful history of bears and human
beings, from the first cohabitation in prehistoric caves to the bear handlers
whose actions threatened the survival of the species. It continues with a
look at the ancient ursine cults and their destruction by the Catholic Church,
reducing the ancient pagan idol into a voracious, lazy, even demonic, animal.
The four hundred teddy bears from the museum’s collections tell the story
of the birth of this toy in 1920 in Germany and the United States, as well as
its transformations and successes. Since the first models made from mohair
and wooden straw, which were heavy and rigid, the teddy bear has become
more flexible and softer. He now comes in bright or pastel colours, making
him the ideal cuddly toy. He reigns over an entire menagerie of stuffed
animals, as well as works of children’s fiction, thanks to figures like Winnie
the Pooh, Mishka the Bear, and Paddington.
Nowadays, while children abandon their toys at a younger and younger
age, teddy bears have retained their allure thanks to this symbolic charge,
the artists inspired by them, and the adults who keep them into adulthood.
Staying close to one’s childhood companions is no longer a sign of
immaturity but allows one to cultivate the part of childhood that lies within us
all, giving voice to our spontaneity and creativity.
Far from the ferocious demigod that he once was, the bear has become—
particularly in its polar version—the symbol of climate change and nature
under threat. The various actions carried out to save the species, and the
debates generated, show that the bear has never been, and never will be,
an animal like any other.